Starting with the Man in the Mirror: How Can We All Help to Heal America’s Political Incivility?

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The last time I posted, I asked the question, “Can the McCain Eulogies Unite Us?”

I knew it was overly-optimistic to even fantasize that they could—even if just for a few days. But the answer to my question has been given over the last two months, and it is a resounding NO.

Make no mistake, it was nice to see Biden, Graham, Bush, Obama, and others discuss McCain’s life-long attempts to work when he could across party lines, denigrating those that divide us and praising McCain’s calls for civility.

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If only all political rivals saw this as the best way to engage with each other.

“We never doubted that we were on the same team,” Obama said of his political rival, speaking of the times they shared in the White House having discussions and disagreements about policy.

The eulogies brought a ton of tears and clear criticisms of those that peddle in the politics of fear and division (Meghan McCain was amazing and probably stole the show), calling on us all to have the same optimistically positive view of America and of American democracy that John McCain had. Democrats and Republicans both stood in line to offer praise of the man and his convictions about what made America great. Those that had nothing positive to say about him just simply kept quiet.

It was a nice salve for our wounds, but at best, it lasted about one week before we started to rip the nation apart again.

I don’t have to dwell on the things that have divided us lately. We’ve all lived out the partisan ugliness that has been the last couple of months, from the Kavanaugh fiasco to our current pipe bombs/murders.

It seems like we are nearing a breaking point. On Monday of this past week I was having a great discussion with one of my classes about our current national divisiveness, and in an effort to put things into context, I told them that we’ve had worse moments than this in our history, and yet emerged from them. Discussing the 1960s as one example, I said, “Hey, at least we have not had any political assassinations or attempts,” and then reeled off the names of JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, and Wallace.

Even as I said it, I feared it was exactly where we were headed. And then came a quick spate of political violence: a Kroger shooting of 2 African Americans when the shooter was thwarted from entering a black church, pipe bombs delivered to two former presidents and other high profile political leaders, and then the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history by a guy that was led to believe Jews were helping to bring a caravan of dangerous immigrants into the country.

It all feels almost as numbing as 9/11. The difference this time: the enemy is within (homegrown terrorists that are products of our own political divisions and rhetoric), and this time we have no president metaphorically standing on the rubble, uplifting us with hope and American pride.

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A moment like this is not going to happen with the current president.

But I post today because this is not any one person’s fault, and focusing on the leadership problems with our current president is only going to make things worse.  As I have posted before, I am done with hate, because the events of the last couple of months are perfect examples of what hate brings.

Instead then, I’d like to humbly point out the things that I hope and pray we will all consider doing—collectively, and with an optimistic outlook on what can be accomplished.

1. Look to others for rhetoric that unites us. We have got to stop expecting the current president to be a pillar that will say the right things that will bring the country together and return us to civility. That simply is not who he is. When he reads from a teleprompter he says good things, but when he reverts to his true sentiments, he just cannot overcome who he is.

Instead of constantly bashing the man for not being what he should be, let’s start uplifting and passing along the words of people who appeal to our better angels. Be they politicians or pundits, preachers, teachers, celebrities, fathers, mothers, or innocent children, let’s listen closely to each other and champion those that unite us. Post their words on social media. Make and share positive memes. Bring these people to the attention of others in our conversations and online chats.

And VOTE for them when we find them among those running for office.

2. And while I am on memes—I wish people would start checking on the veracity of a meme before they retweet or share it. The internet is flooded with inaccurate quotes and “facts” that are misleading and/or downright fabricated lies made by people that just make up or pass along whatever seems to support what they believe. These things are usually incredibly divisive and just plain wrong. abraham-lincoln-quote-internet-hoax-fake-450x293.jpgWhen seeing one that we think should be shared, I wish people would  pause and do a quick check of the facts (Snopes.com does a great job of debunking most of them), and ask themselves, “does this unite or divide us” before they pass it along.

3. Be honest about our history as a nation. It frustrates me when I hear or read people stating things like, “this political violence is not who we are. This is not America.” etc. The truth is, America has always been racked by political violence.

Let me name but a few examples (look them up if you need to): The protests that led to the American Revolution. Violence against loyalists during the Revolutionary War. Burr kills Hamilton. The Trail of Tears. Antebellum attacks on abolitionists. Nat Turner’s Revolt and its retaliatory aftermath. The Caning of Sumner on the floor of Congress. “Bleeding Kansas.” The Civil War. Reconstruction-era violence to suppress black equality and suffrage. The wars on the Plains Indians.  The Haymarket Riot. Violence and imprisonment of women’s suffrage protestors. The “Red Summer of 1919.”  Race riots during WWI and WWII.  The strength and activities of the 1920s KKK. Thousands of lynchings between the 1880s and 1960s. Civil Rights era violence (Little Rock, the beating of Freedom Riders, Oxford riots, Birmingham bombings, numerous murders– including children, Selma, etc.), Kent State. 1960s political assassinations.  The clash between police and protestors at the 1968 Democrat Convention in Chicago. Stonewall riots. Oklahoma City. Four presidents assassinated and fifteen others threatened by plots and/or attempts.

Need I go on? And this is just a very small sampling that readily comes to mind. I list these not to insist that we have always been this way and that therefore there is no hope we can change. Rather, I list these so that we realize that contrary to what we often hear, political violence has long been part of the fabric of who we are. Let’s stop longing for a time when things were so much better. There is no golden age. We can’t solve a problem until we are honest about it.

We have to work to make America greater now than it ever has been in the past.

4. Let’s be introspective and look at the “man in the mirror.” Our current political tribalism is destroying us, and if we are honest with ourselves, at some level we are all guilty of making the problem worse. I am as guilty as anyone.

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We can’t keep seeing politics like this—Good vs. Evil.

When we talk or post about the people that support political parties other than our own, we all too often paint them as dumb, naive, and insane, or worse, evil people that hate our country, its values, and its mission. Good vs. Evil.

I can’t see how that helps anything. How can you expect someone to listen objectively and civilly to the thoughts and opinions of others, when their own opinions are belittled, twisted, and demonized? Or how can you expect everyone to act civilly when people are whipped into a frenzy by someone that paints the opposition as a dangerous threat to our country and our lives?

I wish people would be careful in their words when they talk about the political opposition, and would show a willingness to listen. We are more likely to find the places where we agree and can compromise if we are willing to demonstrate, as Obama said of McCain, that “we are on the same team.”

Our government was created as a product of compromise, meant to facilitate compromise. Our Founders were politically divided, just as us, and on many of the same issues. But in working to find common ground, they crafted the Republic that we love so much. Compromise is the only way it could be created, and the only way that it works.

Bottom line: we are not going to get anywhere if we’ve come to believe that the opposition is evil and must be destroyed. If our Founders had felt that way, our nation would have never made it out of the cradle. Instead, let’s follow their example by understanding that most Americans want the best for our country, and that because we disagree on how to obtain that, we MUST compromise in order to get it.

5. Educate our youth about how democracy and voting works. Don’t assume that our younger generations understand our political process. I can tell you as a college educator, a very large number of them leave high school without a basic understanding of how our system works.

There are myriad reasons for this, so please don’t interpret my words here as a criticism of our teachers. They are absolute warriors on the frontlines of our nation’s problems, but they are handcuffed in innumerable ways—not the least of which is how we test and grade learning.

But the simply truth is that our young are not voting in large number because they often times don’t even know how or why they should. This is one of the things that I have learned from my college students over the years, especially when discussing the U.S. Constitution.

Over the last week, I have had detailed discussions with my college classes about everything that is going on, and I can tell you, they ARE paying attention and are worried about our nation’s future. But many honestly do not know what they can do about it.

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Students working on campus and in my building just last week to get their generation voting. Let’s help them!

They all too often are ignorant about the functions and limits on our state and national government, where to go to find unbiased information about candidates, the basics of what to expect when handling a ballot, or even that they have to register ahead of time.

The fear of the unknown plagues them when they consider voting, and that frightens many of them away. Further, all too often those that ARE voting, are simply doing so based on who mom or dad directed them to vote for, and/or because of the party the candidate represents.

Let’s all work to fix that. Don’t leave it to just teachers and professors. Engage the young on voting and the democratic process, and please do it without using language that only increases tribalism and division. Encourage them to find candidates, irregardless of party, that they like and agree with, avoiding language about defeating the enemy, or saving America from those that seek to destroy it.

So that’s it. Just five things I am going to try to do better, and that I encourage others to consider.

Look, I am just some guy with ideas and thoughts no more valuable than anyone else’s. As they say, “opinions are like butts; we have all have them, and they all stink.” So I am far from some authority that should be preaching to others about how they should live their lives.

But there is one thing of which I’m certain—our current tribally partisan problems are only going to get worse, probably MUCH worse, before they get better.

But I refuse to sit idly by, bemoaning the sad state of affairs, waiting for some political savior to ride in and save the day.

We ALL have to be a hero that stands on this rubble and seeks to unite us. I’ve offered my five things that I plan to do and that I hope might inspire others. What’s your ideas? What would you like to see people do to change things? Get your ideas out there and practice them.

And in the words of our last inspiring president; “Don’t boo, . . . . VOTE.”

 

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