Needed in Politics: Our Better Angels

In a commentary about the current state of the Democratic Party, Fox New politics editor Chris Stirewalt writes, “Democrats have come in for a great deal of mockery over a silly promotion in which supporters were asked to vote on their preferred slogans for campaign stickers. One of the options was, “I mean, have you seen the other guys?” This is some undeniably weak sauce right there. It probably only reflects the foolish, stale snark of some poor intern tasked in finding a way to flog the same donors for another $5.”

Stirewalt later writes, “One of the main drawbacks to “have you seen the other guys” as a campaign strategy is that eventually you might succeed and then you are the “other guys.” And unlike more positive campaigning of the past, you arrive with no mandate other than not being as detestable as someone else. Moreover, it’s hard to really show yourself as the less detestable one if all you do is carp.”

Although Stirewalt specifically mentions the Democratic Party, he could easily be talking about the Republican Party.

I shake my head whenever political partisans proclaim, “Our guys may be bad, but the other guys are worse!” It is as if each side believes that it is somehow morally superior to the other.

When it comes to claims of moral superiority, I keep in mind two passages in the Tanakh (a.k.a. Old Testament):

Psalm 14:2-3: “The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

Ecclesiastes 7:20: “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”

According to these Tanakh passages, it isn’t false equivalence to say that Democrats and Republicans are morally equal. So, I reject a holier-than-thou attitude coming from either Democrats or Republicans. Such an attitude is foolish and does nothing to promote civility in political discourse.

Regarding civility in the current state of American politics, David Plazas writes the following:

“Civility is in decline in the United States and Americans know it, but few think they can — or want to — do anything about it.

Surveys and polls taken over the last few months show that people are facing a harder time having polite political conversations with those who disagree with them.

Further, they are concerned that the growing incivility in politics — the screaming, the name-calling, the social media confrontations — leads to bullying, intimidation and, worse, violence.

The June 14 tragedy involving a former Bernie Sanders presidential campaign volunteer who shot and seriously injured people, including a member of Congress, at a House Republican baseball team practice outside Washington, D.C., is a manifestation of that concern.

A few days later The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote: “For more and more Americans, the other side isn’t merely misguided in the extreme. It’s evil in the absolute …”

Efforts hoping to turn the tide face an uphill battle as people are increasingly growing comfortable in their echo chambers or retreating from discussing politics all together save for when there is a tragedy.

These stances are dangerous for democracy, which is sustained by active participation in governance at the local, state and federal levels, and that often requires conversation, compromise and cooperation.”

Plazas’ observation about the state of American politics is echoed in this statement by the bipartisan network Better Angels:

“We’re becoming several Americas, each a stranger to the others and each increasingly hostile to the others. Each America today views its political adversaries as enemies whose ways of thinking are so harmful and alien as to be incomprehensible. This degree of rancor and mistrust threatens our democracy.”

Better Angels also states “Surely in our increasingly and dangerously fractured nation – liberals and conservatives detesting one another, the upscale minority increasingly isolated from the majority, and the ruled holding the rulers in growing contempt – we all need to be touched by something “better” within us and within the institutions that we build together.”

This appeal to one’s better angel comes from the ending of President Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Even if we have failed to use our better angels when discussing politics (as I know that I have certainly failed), it isn’t too late for us to do so.

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