There are numerous theories as to why our political environment is so polarized and dysfunctional: echo chambers created by the internet, radical politicians elected in gerrymandered districts, the role of money in politics, angry economically marginalized voters and the pervasive use of negative campaigning. All are contributing factors to the abysmal state of American politics.
There are also various and sundry proposals for large-scale structural fixes that might, over time, return a semblance of civility to American political life. Count me in.
What part can we, individual citizens, play in restoring civility to our democracy? It starts with guarding our own tongues.
A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump’s Justice Department announced it was rescinding the executive order that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allowed some people who illegally entered the United States as minors to be granted a deferment from deportation and eligibility to work. As a longstanding supporter of immigrant rights, my organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, opposed the administration’s move.
I reviewed a draft public statement, which declared that it was “inhumane” to end the DACA program. I paused at the word inhumane (a previous statement did use the term), and asked that it be removed and that the language be toned down.
The next day, I spoke to a well-respected community leader about the DACA program. “I actually support the president’s decision,” he said. “I am a strong supporter of the DREAM Act (legislation before Congress that would provide similar protections as DACA), but I don’t think such policies should be made by administrative decree.” He further argued that immigrants come to this country precisely because “we are a nation of laws. I want to preserve that.”
I didn’t agree with him, but neither could I honestly regard his argument as “inhumane.” Had I used the term, implying he and his fellow travelers lack empathy, I would have surely alienated him and made future policy discussions more difficult.
Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric coming from opposing sides of hotly contested policy issues does just that.
Let there be no misunderstanding: when my organization takes a stance on an issue we deem in the best interest of our community and the broader society, we spare no effort to win the day.
Nonetheless, even as we push for our policy positions, we also recognize that most of the people on the other side might have a valid, even if mistaken point. What’s more, these people are our neighbors. They vote in the same elections. They care about improving this country just as much as we do. And they aren’t going away.
Indeed, both the right and left cling to the pernicious fantasy that, once and for all, they will vanquish the other and get their way. But American politics is a pendulum that swings in one direction for a time, and then swings back. One side will triumph on a set of policies, fail to produce the promised utopian reality, and spark political change in the opposite direction. There will be no total victory or total defeat of the right or the left. We are stuck with our disagreements, partial victories, setbacks, and imperfect compromises.
If we are never going to completely vanquish our political adversaries, perhaps we can preserve the possibility of compromise. Perhaps we can advocate in such a way that doesn’t denigrate and avoid ad hominem attacks. Perhaps we can both advance our political agendas, and leave room for constructive dialogue and working together on issues about which we agree. Perhaps we can protect our increasingly fragile democracy.
It’s even possible that by advocating in a more civil manner, we can better influence people who are sitting on the fence on a given debate. Fiery rhetoric fires up the base, but rarely brings along the undecideds.
At the end of the day, just as important as it is to implement our policy agenda, is to leave a society in place that’s capable of talking about disagreements and fashioning solutions, imperfect though they may be.
If you, too, want a less polarized political discourse, ask yourself this: are your actions and statements — your Facebook posts, dinner discussions, rally signs, and letters to the editor — contributing to division or reducing it?
It’s not enough to complain about incivility. We must be civil ourselves.
Being a little less scorching in how we express our views can go a long way in preserving our democracy. And that’s worth fighting for.
David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.