A former member of Congress who served during the 1990s told me recently that the difference between the Congress he served in and the Congress we have today is that those who presently represent us in Washington want all of what they want, or they want nothing at all.
While compromise has become a lost art, the sharing of ideas that are an actual blend of the right and the left has become practically non-existent. The result is that our American leaders have divided the nation in ways that are borderline tragic.
In today’s real world, we are learning to make dinner party plans by asking ourselves if the Joneses and the Smiths are conservative or liberal. A once close friend stormed out of our house and never came back after a debate over a routine political discussion. I was even told by my millennial son and his wife that at their house, politics is a taboo topic for fear of an unpleasant disagreement.
U.S. leaders can deflect their contribution to this sad state of affairs by arguing that this attitude reflects today’s America. In truth, however, it is the never-ending stream of partisan pandering which has carried us to the brink of social destruction. Honestly, is this the kind of America these leaders dream about? I only ask because they seem to be working very hard to encourage it.
Elected leaders might think they are serving us with their negative name-calling and over-the-top rhetoric. But in truth they are drowning our spirit through their churlish, boorish behavior. While their personal attacks and equally personal counter attacks on one another may serve to excite their most fervent followers, their lack of civility threatens the unified foundation of our country. Have they forgotten our nation’s motto, “e pluribus unum,” out of many comes one?
The America I love is not about labeling one another. I know conservatives who are the most giving, caring people I have ever met. I also know social progressives who wave the flag of patriotism with intense fervor. But listening to the demonizing rhetoric, I wouldn’t know that either of those examples could possibly be true.
Maybe they all need to take a deep breath and realize that words and how we use them really do matter. Who among our current leaders remember President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill working across the aisle to achieve great things? Chris Matthews reminds us in his excellent book “Tip and the Gipper” of how our nation’s two leading and opposing politicians at the time forged a relationship based on respect and purpose. During that same era, Edward Kennedy, a liberal, Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts, partnered closely with Orrin Hatch, a conservative, Mormon Republican from Utah, to pass historic legislation devoted to improving health, and funding important scientific research that would lead to major discoveries and medical cures.
The close friendship between Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia is yet another positive example of civility.
We’re not asking our leaders to surrender their liberal or conservative values. And we don’t want them to give up their strongly held principles. We simply want a nation where we — and them — learn to talk to each other again without fear of reprisal. We are merely encouraging them to put forth and discuss real solutions that exist beyond the clever soundbite. We want a nation where civil, thoughtful, political discourse replaces hateful speech and hurtful accusations.
Our great country is facing challenges on many fronts. These challenges can only be fixed through bipartisan cooperation. We have a crisis on our southern border. There are enemy nations that wish us ill will. Our climate is changing. Drug addiction is out of control. Our kids are falling behind in STEM education. Continued scientific research is needed to cure diseases. Our national list of vital needs goes on and on. And right now we need our leaders more than ever to set a new example of civility so that together our country can work to solve these urgent problems.