On civility and the true meaning of “politics” in an election year

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece on partisanship in Puerto Rico and its detrimental effects on governance. In it, I mentioned how bipartisanship and cooperation is something that the U.S. needs as well. Nothing drives a wedge between people of different ideologies like an election year. What we are seeing so far is a U.S. presidential campaign that is getting more and more divisive and contentious, with some candidates clearly lacking a necessary dose of civility and decorum.

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This general feeling of hostility foments a political arena that is loud, yet produces little. At the end of the day, the ideal result of an election of a new head of the executive branch is the right circumstances for the adoption and implementation of policies (preferably good, effective policies) . So called “party politics” or “election politics” don’t achieve good governance. This was a prevailing message in President Obama’s State of the Union speech last week:

The future we want – opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.

It will only happen if we fix our politics.

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.

With the President’s words in mind, I thought about the true meaning of the word politics, a topic which came up during our Paula Daniel’s Lunch with a Leader event last semester. Both our guest and Bedrosian Center director Raphael Bostic clarified their views on what “politics” and “political” mean. Regrettably, the term “politics” has adopted an inherently negative connotation in everyday talk.

But what is politics? Paula Daniels spoke about how the process that she participated in to adopt a new sustainable food system was “political in the best sense.” All stakeholders were involved and the result came through a process of dialogue and negotiation. Along the same lines, Professor Bostic pointed out how many people profess to hate politics without realizing that all “politics” means is collective decision-making. It is important not to lose sight of that.

Politics is the process of collective decision-making.

In the midst of the craziness of a general election and heavy campaigning on both sides of the aisle, we should remember this definition and aim to “fix our politics” just as the President exhorted in his address. Good governance has no winners and losers, it is built on agreement and compromise. Collaboration is key.

While it is the Republican party candidates, most notably Donald Trump, who have been criticized most for lacking tact and expressing themselves harshly; debates on the Democratic side have also been getting more contentious as the first caucuses in Iowa and New Hampshire approach.

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On the one hand, should we really blame the candidates for wanting to be the loudest voice heard? It is understandable that there is an election at stake and they want to move forward. After all, even when Trump has been criticized for appealing to anger and fear, and making grandiose statements no matter how insulting or exaggerated, polls would suggest that his tactics are working. He seems to be getting overwhelming support in spite of obnoxious rhetoric (maybe even as a result).

So is this a case of “don’t hate the player, hate the game?” Maybe it is the election game that has become corrupted. Maybe we have tainted what politics should be with the fanfare that elections bring instead. This is precisely the sort of politics citizens become disillusioned with.

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One thing is certain; once the primary elections are over, the presidential election is bound to become even more divisive and contentious between the two parties’ contenders. We can stand strong discussion and debating in an election campaign, even celebrate it. What we have to remember is that that at the end of that election, Democrats and Republicans will need to work together in Congress, and in government at all levels, in order to adopt and implement effective policies. It will be next to impossible to do that if candidates don’t opt for civility and respect when expressing their differing views.

Our latest Holt Lecture Speaker, Dana Perino, touched on the need for civility and decorum in her memoir: “If you don’t start off thinking the opposition is evil, but that they want to get to the same place you do, then you’re already on your way to having a more civil and productive conversation.”

She also highlights her good relationship with President Obama, despite having different ideologies and disagreements on policies. President Obama also called for the same level of civility in the State of the Union when he said that “[democracy] doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice”.

It is for that reason that as voters and consumers of the media we should be weary of candidates and individuals who want us to see those who disagree or are different from us as the enemy. If politics is collaborative decision-making, then we should hope that by the time the election is over it will not have rid us of any desire to collaborate with each other across party lines and ideologies.

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