Political seasons do not always bring out the best in our political system. The impulse to draw sharp distinctions to win elections exacerbates differences but fails to provide sufficient content to inform voters. When elections are combined with high unemployment, rising foreclosures, and increasing economic desperation, the voices of some become shrill and the voices of the vast majority are weary and often mute. But this year’s posturing, acrimony, and ill will seems to have hit a new peak.
Rational discussion of differences has become so difficult that it has fallen to two hosts on the cable channel Comedy Central to lead a rally for sanity. Other than being present Oct. 30th on the Mall in Washington, what can voters do about the bankrupt state of our current political debate?
Laughter would help, though our problems are no laughing matter.
More talking, more listening, more understanding of diverse views would help. But foremost is a commitment to model the behavior we seek. Respectful dialog may have to begin with a one-sided determination to refrain not only from attacks, but from dismissal of others’ concerns. Sustained rationality in the face of hysteria and disdain can at least weed out those who refuse dialog under any circumstances and isolate the screamers. Others may begin to listen when the din quiets.
But this approach calls for sustained engagement, for leaving our cocoon of the like-minded to share a table, a room, or a community with those not "like us," and building from there. It may mean digging fairly deep to find the common interest from which civil debate about the issues that challenge us may occur. It certainly means a long horizon – shifting the political culture is a step by step process that will suffer many setbacks.
While we must act on a personal level, inspiring institutional change is also imperative. We must overcome a media – largely on the airwaves – that promotes controversy for its own sake (or for profit), that sees political choices solely in horse race terms, and that treats facts as a distraction. A media culture that promotes confrontation over compromise cannot serve a pluralistic democracy such as ours.
Our religious institutions must also answer the call to intervene in the fray, not to adopt or project policy solutions, but to remind the debaters of the humanity and respect we each owe to the other.
We believe our values inspire our politics, but we must concede such motivations to others as well. Our educational system must also contribute to a commitment to critical thinking, to civics education, and to democratic values. Young people today are said to be more tolerant and consensus-minded than their elders – but is such tolerance a generational shift? Or is it simply today’s version of youthful idealism, bound to be ground down tomorrow by a political system that exploits polarization over understanding and compromise?
Civility in politics may seem a chimera, a goal that drains the blood from feisty debate. The reality, however, is that the more negative the tone, the more voters opt out. Surely when the wave of rage passes, the ebb of involvement will make progress even harder. If enough good women and men do nothing, nothing will be achieved. And only partway through the deepest economic crisis we have faced in eighty years, nothing isn’t enough.
Nancy Ratzan is president of the National Council of Jewish Women and served on the President’s Advisory Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2009-2010. She lives in Miami.