Monday, July 19, 2010

Civility in Politics

Well it has been about a month since the primary election and I feel settled enough to have a good mental review of my experience. First of all even though the candidate I worked to support lost I would do it all again, even knowing the outcome. Of course there are things I would do differently. It would be sad if this was not the case, because then I wouldn't have learned anything. Let me share with you some of the positives.
I found that, on a one on one basis, I was almost always able to have civil conversations with individuals who supported the opposing candidate (see my post on Why I'm Still Supporting Tim Bridgewater ... for a sample of e-mail conversations I had with people who were supporting Mike Lee for US Senate). The only exception was with those who were heavily invested in the opposition campaign and had no interest in listening to other perspectives. In the real world these people were the exception not the rule, which was something that I was delighted to discover.
I genuinely enjoyed the conversations as they always caused me to really think about why I was supporting my candidate and over time strengthened rather than weakened my resolve. Had I simply rejected the other perspectives out of hand I would not have had that growing experience. Even when the other person was initially somewhat hostile I found that genuinely listening almost always softened the tone of the conversation and resulted in a net positive experience. When I reacted by attacking (I must admit that happened once or twice) the dialog devolved and the experience left me with a bitter aftertaste. Great life lesson here! The good thing is that were I 10 or 20 years younger I would have had tasted a lot more bitterness.

It seems like every election cycle I hear people saying that things are getting worse with respect to civility. Well, that may be true in the short term, or maybe people just forget over time the experience of prior elections. Let me share some quotes from a prior election (the names were changed to give you a moment to try and figure out who the participants were):
  1. "Mr. Smith [is] unfit and incapable as President, [and is] a man whose defects of character are guaranteed to bring certain ruin to the party."
  2. He berated [the President] in nearly every way possible - for his "great intrinsic defects of character," his "disgusting egotism," weaknesses, vacillation, his "eccentric tendencies," his "bitter animosity" toward his own cabinet. He deplored [the President's] handling of relations with France, the "precipitate nomination" of Mr. Jones, the firing of Mr. Johnson, the pardoning of Mrs. Williams.
  3. Mr. Jones called [the President] a "repulsive pedant," a "gross hypocrite," and "in his private life, one of the most egregious fools upon the continent." [The President]  was "that strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness," a "hideous hermaphoditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
  4. "The historian will search for those occult causes that induced her [America] to exalt an individual who has neither that innocence of sensibility which incites it to love, nor that omnipotence of intellect which commands us to admire. He will ask why the United States degrades themselves to the choice of a wretch that has neither the science of magistrate, the politeness of a courtier, nor the courage of a man?"
The election referred to above was the presidential election of 1800, pitting the current president, John Adams against Thomas Jefferson. Remarks 1 and 2 were made by Alexander Hamilton against Adams, a member of his own party (the Federalists). Remarks 3 and 4 were made by  James Callender (a propagandist, working with the encouragement and financial support of Jefferson) against Adams. See "John Adams" by David McCullough pages 545, 549, and 537.

One of my favorite Alexander Hamilton (Federalist #1, fourth paragraph) quotes seem apropos, “… nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution." From the example above, it seems Alexander still had a bit of fire and sword in him. I admire Hamilton for his courage in admonishing himself as well as others with his own words.
Human nature has not changed. The quest for political power often leads the best of men to set aside civility to ensure victory for a cause they believe is just.  Does it have to be this way? No, but more than likely it will continue to be as most cannot resist the urge to reinforce what they "know" to be true about their opponent using whatever means available. And those that use this playbook, win more often than not.
If we are unhappy about this then it is up to us to set aside the political rhetoric that comes to us through the airwaves, over the Internet, and via the postal service. We need to take the time to meet the candidates and listen to their own words, not what someone else says that they said. This is probably too much to ask of everyone. Fortunately, in Utah we have the happy circumstance that we use a delegate system to select our party candidates at convention or at least narrow the choice to two that voters can choose from. If there is a primary we can ask the delegates, whom we elected to represent us at our party conventions, about their thoughts on the candidates. They generally spend a lot of time meeting with candidates in small group sessions and thereby develop informed opinions.

If we elect politicians without seeking to understand their views then we are short changing ourselves and helping perpetuate the cycle of negative campaigning and meaningless sound bites. Most delegates are able to share their views via e-mail, blogs, Facebook, and precinct meetings. But even if these mechanisms aren't used we should know who they are and can simply ask them. After all, they are our neighbors and friends.


  1. Insightful, Rod. It's good to hear you are still working to make political discourse in Utah a step above the rest of the world.

  2. Wow did'nt know you had a blog I'll have to start digging in. Then again I'm not plugged into the matrix anymore... Getting gpa's comp fixed :-) btw very insightful keep it up!


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