This year, to celebrate our nation’s birthday, the most patriotic thing most of us could do, even as we’re flipping burgers or watching a game, might be to make a point of exchanging views civilly with someone who is not like us, racially or religiously or perhaps most challengingly of all, in terms of political ideology.
A new NPR/PBS/Marist poll found 7 in 10 Americans from both parties think political incivility has gotten worse since President Donald Trump was elected. Just 3 in 10 Americans said the same at this point in Barack Obama’s first term.
Whatever you think is the reason for that unacceptable dip in common courtesy — and let’s not fight about that right now — the solution is the same. It’s up to all of us to do better.
Anyone who has gotten to know elected officials at any level would surely say that traits such as kindness, generosity, arrogance and selfishness are randomly distributed across the political spectrum. If you think that should go without saying, you’re right. But in a time when we not only disagree but increasingly think that those who don’t share our views are bad people with worse motives, we need reminding.
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First, we can surely agree on this: We did not get here by accident. Demonizing the political other through ads, talk radio, cable TV and social media campaigns is big business, and it has taken a toll on our sense of ourselves as one people.
But unlike so many of our problems, this is one we can counter on our own.
On the day we traditionally remember our country’s founders, consider the example of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who were each other’s greatest rivals and also dearest friends.
From the outset, Jefferson wrote, he and Adams saw things quite differently because of the “different conclusions we had drawn from our political reading.” Just like you and your friend who watches only Fox, maybe, or MSNBC.
In the final days of Adams’ administration, he appointed men whom his successor, Jefferson, saw as his “ardent” enemies. The relationship was strained, and Jefferson admitted “brooding over it for some little time.”
But if those two could patch it up, why not you and the uncle who loves whatever commentator drives you crazy, or the neighbor who had that campaign sign you wanted to tear down? (To practice extending the benefit of the doubt, we’ll assume you didn’t act on that impulse.)
Sometimes, we avoid such conversations by telling ourselves that since neither person is going to change the other’s mind, there’s no point in talking about tough subjects at all.
But it’s changing ourselves that’s the point — not by shifting positions except the one that holds that our political adversaries came to their conclusions out of cynicism or stupidity.