Bring Back Decency to American Politics
any Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo of politics and governance and, in fact, have been for quite some time. The feeling is that Washington, D.C. and our elected representatives are not really getting the job done and many Americans have become fed up. For many, "blowing up" politics-as-usual was the only solution. Perhaps that is required for change, but the survival of our democracy and indeed, our humanity, depends on not throwing out norms of integrity and decent behavior in that quest to bring about that change. Even if we are so upset with the way things are and seek radical change, we still must maintain a dialog using a common language based upon truth and honesty along with a commitment to treating others with dignity, respect, and love, regardless of political party, sex, race, religion or any other aspect of being human. When we abandon some of the basic levels of human decency and look at everything with a win-at-all-costs mentality, we begin to lose our own souls and potentially, the soul of our nation.
The Almanack has never offered its pages to posit in favor of either a Republican or Democratic agenda and doesn’t intend to do so here. However, it does feel compelled to speak out that both sides of the aisle have a responsibility to make decency nonpartisan. The absence of decency is negatively affecting the political process and when married to a hyper-partisanship, has helped to undermine the effectiveness of Congress, grinding the legislative process to a screeching halt.
In some ways, "decency” is a hazy and elusive concept; we know it when we see it. We are all uplifted by stories of decency ― especially in politics, so often fraught with ambition and ego-driven competition. When the norm is decency, other virtues can thrive such as integrity, honesty, compassion, kindness, and trust. While mockery and ridicule have long been a part of our politics, recently, they have come to dominate what passes for political discourse. After all, it’s easier to dismiss the opposition with a symbolic body-slam or ridicule with an insulting nickname rather than listening to opposing opinions and working to find common ground. Without compromise, in any given situation, one of the two parties will inevitably become "the party of no”.
Regardless of political persuasion, obstructionism has become the new norm. And because of this, ordinary Americans now view their representatives as ineffective and elected officials distrusting their own colleagues. We can't function as a community of people and as a nation without a standard of how we treat each other and how we respect the fundamental virtues imperative to being citizens of this great country and the world. And if truth no longer matters and we are unwilling to agree on what is true, then we cannot have a common set of facts. Without a common set of facts, we can't get to the discussing the common good. At that point, our democracy is broken.
When relationships are strong and based upon honesty, respect and decency, politicians are more apt to work across the aisle. Rhetoric is less divisive, coalitions are more diverse, and dialogue is more frequent and productive. Political decency is a sign of a healthy democracy and it is, at times, the cause of it. Whatever the starting point, decency unites, it inspires, it brings out our strengths, and it shores up our weaknesses.
In the past, leaders of both parties have been able to reach across the partisan divide. They succeeded by retaining their own humanity and recognizing the same in their political opponents. Overcoming party ideology, they put aside partisanship and passed monumental legislation that included the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Mental Health Parity Act, the Child Safety Act, and the Violence Against Women Act –- some of the most transformational legislation in recent history. Through collaboration, these politicians were able to reach across the aisle with civility and compassion and found common ground. But today, even with very popular and bipartisan legislation proposed to reform immigration laws, to enact common-sense gun regulation, and to protect the rule of law, we see no compassion or willingness to compromise.
The true heroes of American democracy will be those who restrain their partisanship and commit to making democracy do what it was designed to do. Searching for our commonality instead of pointing to our differences can transform our dysfunctional politics. President Teddy Roosevelt recognized this, saying that "the most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency.”
The politics of meanness and contempt that permeates our politics today must be rejected. As citizens, we must recommit ourselves to pursuing the truth and demand ing that our leaders do the same and act with honesty, integrity, compassion, and kindness. Only that way will they be able to regain their constituents’ trust. This may seem beyond the reach of our leaders, but it’s never too late to start demanding it of them. The return of decency to American Politics will only happen when those have the personal and political will to make ensuring it a priority.