The Cure for Election Madness
Mark DeMoss, concerned about the increasingly harsh tone of public discourse, launched the Civility Project in January 2009. The Republican businessman and political adviser enlisted Democratic lobbyist and former Clinton aide Lanny Davis to help him. Together the two friends wrote to all 100 United States Senators, all 435 members of the House of Representatives, and all 50 state governors, asking each to sign a pledge promising, "I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it."
How many of the 585 recipients agreed?
Two years later, DeMoss wrote to the legislators who had signed the pledge, Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman and Republican Representatives Frank Wolf and Sue Myrick, informing them he was closing the project. "You three were alone in pledging to be civil," DeMoss wrote. "I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar."
Thousands of private citizens showed their support by signing the pledge, but others attacked the project. In an interview, DeMoss described his surprise and dismay at the hostile response he received from fellow conservatives: Some of the e-mails contained "unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn't use in this phone call," he explained. "This political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat."
Why were so few of the nation's leaders willing to take such a simple and seemingly uncontroversial public stand? Why did so many web users respond to a call for civility and respect with vulgarity and vicious attacks? What might these events reveal about contemporary American politics?
Today's hyperpartisan and meanspirited political climate makes it difficult to engage in civil and meaningful dialogues. Indeed, the temperature of the political conversation seems to rise as elections draw near. In recent months, presidential candidates have maligned their opponents for their "finger-in-the-wind politics," "ignorance of basic economics," and "frugal socialism." In the 2008 campaign, one candidate said George W. Bush was "brain-dead." Conservative radio host Bill Bennett rallied the crowd at the 2010 Values Voters Summit with the call, "If you voted for [Obama] last time to prove you are not a racist, you must vote against him this time to prove you are not an idiot." Simple differences in perspective can quickly turn into fiery battles and over-the-top attacks.
Heated rhetoric can escalate beyond wars of words. When political opponents spend more time hurling insults and accusations at one another than gathering together to hammer out solutions to complicated problems, stalemates result. Politicians focus on pointing fingers and attributing blame instead of sincerely trying to accomplish the work that voters elected them to do. At its worst, bitter rancor can turn to violence.
If we are to seek peaceful solutions and honor God in politics, we Christians of all people must avoid such hateful talk. James 4:11 commands us to "not slander one another," an exhortation that should extend beyond how we treat other believers. Whether talking with friends or campaigning for our favorite candidate or cause, we should engage our political opponents and their ideas with respect, welcome the opportunity to learn from other perspectives, and find ways to disagree charitably as a natural part of the political process.