The last time we visited the aftermath of an act of political violence in this space, it was January 2011 and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot at a constituent meeting in Tucson. She survived but six died, including a 9-year-old girl.
Fast forward six years, and this time it is a congressional leader seriously wounded and four others shot at baseball practice in Washington, D.C.
The two incidents come amid continuing and escalating partisan vitriol that often descends into dehumanization and demonization. The two sides call a timeout to acknowledge their common commitments to the democratic process and constituent service. Toning down the confrontational language is a good thing, they say, if only out of respect for the victims.
But at least with the Giffords shooting, a year later it was business as usual – it isn’t just the words but the reasoning and values behind them that have to change if politics are to serve a larger common good. It was the era of Joe Arpaio and the profiling of suspects based on race – the antithesis of what this melting-pot country has stood for but which was justified in the name of “border security.”
Another value that has fallen by the wayside amid the partisan brinkmanship and gridlock in Washington is pragmatism in the face of complexity. As we said six years ago, defining problems like illegal immigration and health care reform in terms of absolute right or wrong cuts off the possibility for resolution short of total victory or surrender. Ambivalence and rethinking old positions should not be seen as cardinal political sins but the virtues of intelligence and open mindedness.
Then there is the value of walking in someone else’s shoes before deciding that one size fits all. It means talking with those with whom you disagree, not at them. Ideally, that would be in face-to-face meetings and open hearings – not writing a health reform bill behind closed committee doors. Politics works only when those involved devote the time and energy to learning as many sides of an issue as possible through fact-finding, listening and testing ideas.
Politicians and commentators who do that kind of hard work aren’t likely to throw it all away with cheap personal shots and weaponized rhetoric. And a citizenry who is educated enough to know the difference won’t let demagogues get away with it, even if they tried.
We acknowledge that politics can be a rough-and-tumble business — we cringe sometimes at the counterproductive name-calling and caustic ridicule, but representative democracy in this country is built on that tradition.
However, it is one thing to disagree at a policy level and throw in a zinger or two during a campaign. But it’s another to show contempt for the values and policies of a predecessor and his supporters when it is time to govern. Some of the most strident and provocative voices of last year’s presidential primaries were those of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. But they weren’t casting opponents as “bad people” or inciting casual violence by supporters with talk of the “enemy.” These are failings of character that should never be met in kind. Our democratic founders assumed a level of civility and respect when the campaigns stopped that isn’t being honored today.
One difference today is the rise of a technology – the Internet – that channels citizens into like-minded groups of “friends” that can reinforce biases and fuel rumors. Finding a common good, therefore, can be difficult amid the self-serving messages coming from the special interests, both corporate and nonprofit. But an Internet program such as “Common Ground,” which interactively brings citizens into a virtual conversation about difficult policy choices, can turn that digital disadvantage on its head. It’s not about achieving consensus so much as respectful listening and an attempt to understand another’s stakes in the various outcomes — whether it is your neighbor, your community or your planet.
So before the two sides against retreat to their corners, let’s use this national timeout to not only tone down the rhetoric but tune into a more principled pragmatism to drive the public conversation in a more civil and productive way.