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(Sigh) Politics: Chapter One, Civility

January 7, 2012

So, there’s a presidential election coming up this year.  I’ve lived through ten of these, so far.  When I was younger, I had a certain sense of wonder in the process, and the office that it determined.  Not so much, these days; a combination of my increased age and experience, and a certain degradation of the political process is to blame, I suspect.

One of my favorite subjects is civility.  In my opinion, civility is one of those things that makes a growing and advancing society workable.  The better we treat one another, the better and stronger our society becomes.  Seems kind of elementary.

I think there are a lot of problems with our current political process… I mean, a lot.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s broken, but it’s seen better days.  I’m going to address what I see as one of the basic ones in this post; maybe I’ll be able to build a better picture by doing it in steps.  So, what do I see at the core of the problems with the current political process in the United States of America?

We’ve managed to create a political culture where incivility and divisiveness are not only tolerated, but rewarded.  And when I say “we,” I mean the voting population of the country.

Politicians need to acquire support in order to attain their desired position.  This support comes in several forms; votes, of course, and the campaign contributions that help them to acquire those votes.  They need to not only get people on their side, but they also need to get people to dig into their pockets and cough up dollars.  They need to get out among the voting public, and dig in among the more closed societies of political supporters, and make people believe that they are the best possible choice.

(There are a LOT more problems right here at this stage in the process… corporate influence, special interest groups, Citizens United, lots of problems.  I’m addressing some of the more general systemic problems, at the moment).

Apparently, the best way to convince people to get on your side is to make sure the sides are heavily polarized.  The more of an “us versus them” attitude one engenders, the more campaign contributions and votes they’re likely to get.  It’s more difficult to engage people’s enthusiasm about a political “contest” than it is to get them riled up about a political “battle.”   What we get as a result are highly emotional, heavily jingoistic, brutal mudslinging campaigns.

It stops being about the issues, 0r even the facts.  It isn’t about a politician trying to convince you that they can do the job of repairing the problems of the country – it’s about the politician letting you know that they’re on your side against things that you don’t like.  “I don’t know jack about economics, but as president, I will annul every same-sex marriage that has ever been performed in this country.”  (Please pardon the specific example, but it’s annoying me terribly).  It doesn’t even matter that, constitutionally, that’s nowhere near the capacity of the office of the president to perform.  It doesn’t matter that it wouldn’t do a single thing to generate jobs, stabilize the economy, protect our interests abroad, or deal with any of the actual issues facing the nation.  It’s polarizing, it’s emotionally charged, and it gets votes.

It certainly makes for great news.  The news media picks up every tidbit of mud and ounce of speculation, and turns it into a 3D graphic.  It blazes across the television and the internet and people start talking about it.  We take sides.  We compose snarky comments and Demotivational posters, we make up statistics that make our side sound better, we actively seek out negative material about one side or the other while completely discounting anything negative about the other side.

We buy in.  We support the process of making our political discourse into little more than a verbal Rugby scrum.  We start using the names of political ideologies like curses or taunts.  “Conservative” and “Liberal” become damning labels, depending on who you’re talking to.  Now, if this only affected the decision-making process for electing our officials, that would be one thing.  It gets sticky as hell, though, when we remember that the job of getting elected never… actually… ends.

As the government attempts to get its job done, the political parties are still focused on that conflict.  “That side can’t get what they want, because then we will have a harder time getting re-elected.  If we make that side look worse, we will have an easier time getting re-elected.”  The tasks of serving the citizens of the United States become secondary to political strategy.  Everything gets turned from a decision-making process into a fight.  One side stone-walls the other.  The other side filibusters.  The government may have to shut down, because there’s a stalemate.  In the end, the bare-minimum to keep things moving at a status quo gets accomplished, the suits pat each other on the back, and then they go on vacation.

It appears to be a very jaded view of the current process, but the process has made a lot of people jaded.  I’d love to see a return to a certain amount of civility and honor in our political process.  I’d like to see clean races run, I’d like to see candidates stick to the relevant issues, I’d like to see a focused and effective process of legislation.  When that becomes likely, I can stop being jaded and cynical about the whole thing.

So, how long do you think I’ll have to wait?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Twisted Joe permalink
    January 7, 2012 7:53 pm

    I think one of the major problems in dealing with incivility, however, is that we all talk about the issue without ever addressing how to resolve it. One idea that I’ve put forward is that if we really want those who oppose our ideas to listen to them, we need to listen to their objections and specifically address those objections.

    A good example of this is in environmental issues, where those who oppose them cite economic concerns. For so long, the argument from environmental causes was “the economy doesn’t matter, it’s simply the right thing to do,” which did nothing to convince those that were concerned about people having jobs to feed and house themselves. It was only once environmentalists started citing increased profits from savings, new jobs for creating green energy, independence from relying on hostile nations and a push for economic superiority in the future that environmentalists started to win over a lot of conservatives, including Shwarzenegger, Hunstman and others.

    Of course in order to even do that, we need to start respecting those who oppose our ideas and recognize that such opposition is usually born from legitimate issues. Yes, often those issues (on either side) may come from a lack of understanding about the issue itself. But I have never known anyone to be more willing to hear that they’re mistaken by being told how stupid they are. And it’s just as possible that at any given time that we don’t understand things as well as we think we do.

    But even more importantly, we all need to recognize that some times there really are issues without ready solutions. There are any number of issues with legitimate principles at stake where both sides have merit and there exists no outcome that will make everyone happy.

    The issue regarding abortion is one such example, where both sides have reasonable and legitimate arguments that are usually lost in the nasty heated rhetoric of “muderer” or “sexist oppressor/religious fanatic”. After all, one side wants women to be able to be free to make choices regarding the working of their own bodies, not to be compelled to follow through with a process that carries inherent dangers (even potentially life-threatening) and emotional consequences and the other wants to be sure that children aren’t murdered. Instead of looking at these arguments in as honest a way as possible and recognizing that both sides are trying to do right in the way that they view things, they engage in emotional manipulation and empty rhetoric instead. And in the meantime, we all lose out on the chance to find ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies, to encourage adoption and so on.

    We just need to remember to take a deep breath, to remember that our opponents want what’s best for this country and to find ways to work with them. Otherwise our great nation will also become a footnote in history.

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