At Issue: Uncivil Times

I can remember when Georgia House Speaker David Ralston and then-House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said nice things about each other. They worked together on some important legislation, across the party divide, for the benefit of Georgians.

In Georgia, we have been relatively lucky in that way, as elected officials from both parties, who normally know each other quite well, or even grew up together, have tended toward mostly courtly manners and intentions. That is, once the statewide elections were over.

I fear that those days are gone. And I suspect the main reason for that is the nationalization of our politics – all politics. Georgia is becoming a more competitive state, and in presidential election terms, a swing state. That means more national attention, more out-of-state money in campaigns and a higher intensity of trash talk. So now, for example, it is an article of faith among Democrats nationally and in Georgia, and with their supporters at CNN and MSNBC, that Gov. Brian Kemp routinely suppresses the votes of African Americans. Abrams herself repeatedly levels this charge. In turn, Republicans portray Abrams as a Socialist stooge and as someone not competent enough to manage her own finances.

Sadly, we live in uncivil times. It’s no longer enough to disagree with someone; now they must be cast as a dangerous extremist. There is nothing new about that. We are, after all, talking about politics. But these last few years have introduced a more desperate and dangerous element. Now one’s opponent must be vilified, and very often, simply destroyed. Why? Because they represent another political party, a different point of view, an alternative belief system. Therefore, in 2019, they are unworthy of consideration, much less respect. And unfortunately, that extends to their supporters.

There is no question it has gotten worse in the Trump years, but this destructive dialog has been growing for years. Most Americans came of age in a time when the opposition gave U.S. presidents an opportunity to serve out their term of office. That’s what the Constitution calls for. But in recent times, going back to Clinton, or even Reagan, every president has come under serious investigation by the opposition with the clear intention of bringing that president down and, hopefully, removing him from office.

The cable news networks specialize in turning up the heat and playing politics. But on cable, reporting the news is a thing of the past. Now it’s mostly about commentary in the service of pushing a narrative. Fox pushes a right-wing perspective, and CNN and MSNBC push a left-wing perspective. Network news isn’t much better; they just have less air time.

What does such political warfare mean for the average citizen? For one thing, it means anger. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Americans of different political persuasions so angry at one another, distrustful and spiteful. At least not since the Vietnam era. But this anger is useful to the elites of both political parties. It can be channeled, mobilized and pointed at their opposition. As we gear up for another dreadful, awful presidential election, this is what we’re seeing now play out on the national stage, and increasingly, on the Georgia stage.

I was recently invited to address a President’s Day symposium at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. The topic was “Courageous Conversations: How to Have Civil Conversations in Uncivil Times.” The room was full of college students, some faculty and even some parents. The incivility and hostility in our culture has hit particularly hard on college campuses around the nation. Social science surveys report that young people feel afraid to discuss sensitive political issues or share their opinions freely in the current climate. This is troubling, because college campuses, of all places, should be places where students are free to explore differing ideas and have these kinds of conversations.

Yet on that day I reminded the students that this is not new. American history, both distant past and recent, is full of similar periods of domestic upheaval, political intimidation, open threats and chilled public speech. I suggested to them that the situation will improve, because it always does, and that it is our fealty to a democratic process that always gets us through.

But in today’s climate, one-half of the civil conversation equation is missing. There’s plenty of talking going on: talking heads, talk radio, online talk, editorialists, you name it. But what is not happening near enough is listening. Political candidates will debate and journalists will editorialize, but in the public square, or on the college campus, there must be room for two-way communication. College administrators, state officials, legislators and journalists should work overtime to reinforce that message.

Categories: At Issue, Opinions