"In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve." – Alexis de Tocqueville
With the Democratic and Republican national conventions behind us, and an increase of political campaigning in front of us, we recognize the timeliness of the above quotation from Alexis de Tocquville. In a democracy the citizens choose their government, thus we indeed receive the government we deserve. As Lisa Sharon Harper recently stated:
"In its purest form, politics is simply how we organize our life together in society…in a Democratic Republic like our own, the [people are] ultimately responsible for the policies, laws, and structures that guide daily life. As we vote for candidates and ballot measures, we shape our society."
With such thoughts in mind, we affirm the collective ability to “shape our society," but we do so not only through the ability to choose our candidates and pass ballot measures, but we also possess the capacity to shape the process of how our leaders and policies are selected. In other words, while many complain about the high quantity and low quality of political campaigns, we are confronted with a harsh reality: In a democracy, we get the political campaigns we deserve.
While an assortment of citizens confess their frustrations surrounding the time, effort, and financial resources that are poured into negative campaigns, we recognize a simple political truth: partisan leaders behave in such ways because we allow it to work.
According to Mark Penn, a former Democratic Party strategist, he and his colleagues once designed research for President Bill Clinton’s re-election bid in 1996, in which voters were shown negative campaign ads in public places. After voters were shown the negative ads, they were interviewed in private (where the participants could speak more openly), and most admitted that negative campaigning had a direct impact.
Similar studies show that while many citizens state publicly that they detest all negative campaigning, privately many are indeed moved by them. Thus the political parties seize upon this opportunity, and the result is a continuous offensive of negative campaigns from all sides of the political spectrum.
While there is far more that can be stated surrounding the consequences and effectiveness of negative campaigns, (and many others have done so), it is worth reflecting upon the type of society we wish to shape. In other words, citizens of a democracy such as ours are not powerless in the face of mass negativity and contempt, but we possess the collective authority to reshape our society in the ways we see most fit.
So the time has come to not only advocate for particular policies and public leaders, but we should demand a more civil process of campaigning that leads to such policies and leaders. In other words, the journey of a campaign shapes us is ways similar to its results, thus we deserve better than the current state of incivility, and the time has come to demand more.
Among other things, one of the ways that citizens can shape a more civil society is to embody respect and value the dignity of all people. Along these lines, one can highlight the Wisconsin Council of Churches and Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, for they are leading a “Season of Civility” in response to the divisive and disrespectful nature of politics in Wisconsin and throughout North America.
The following is an excerpt from their statement on civility, a document that was signed by numerous spiritual leaders – from an assortment of religious traditions- located throughout Wisconsin:
… we commit ourselves to a Season of Civility:
- We will seek to model and support respectful and honest conversations on public issues within our congregations, assemblies, and other forums.
- We will make a genuine effort to understand the reasons for the views of those with whom we disagree and try to explain the grounds for our own positions clearly and without arrogance. Our goal will be to identify shared values and concerns, rather than to “win” arguments.
- We will be mindful of our own fallibility and keep our views open to correction and reconsideration without betraying our deepest convictions.
We encourage all of our fellow citizens, to likewise commit themselves to a Season of Civility:
- Our congregations should be places where civility is taught and practiced as together we seek to learn what our faith calls us to do and be in the world.
- Candidates should strive to adhere to high standards of civility, integrity and truthfulness and insist that the advertisements produced by their own campaigns, and those of third parties, do the same.
- In their campaign reporting and commentary, media should subject all claims and counterclaims to rigorous but fair scrutiny, checking facts, critiquing logic, evaluating sources, and providing context.
- As citizens we should all be critical consumers of media and advertising, questioning claims and resisting attempts to manipulate our emotions.
In lights of such thoughts, we should support a season of civility during this era of increasingly uncivil political campaigns. While it is indeed necessary to constructively critique the candidates and their political affiliations, we should also expect more from ourselves.
When we demean politicians — and when we show disrespect toward those who hold different views — we often feed a massive cycle of communal negativity and disregard, and as a result we see minimal progress and maximum division. And so, instead of trying to fight fire with more fire, the time has come to practice civility among ourselves as we engage in public life, and as we do so, learn to demand respectfulness from our elected officials, before and after Election Day.
In addition to the temptation of feeding the cycle of public and political incivility, we also recognize the appeal of withdrawing from participation all together. There are many who believe the best option is to retreat, not answer the telephone, avoid campaigns (if it were possible), and/or hide from friends and family members who wish to speak about the choice of candidates.
But such attempts of seclusion are not helpful as we try to reshape our society, for brushing the dirt away from view does not make the house clean. In contrast to attempts at escape, and in response to incivility, the time has come to engage with the political process, observe it, examine it, correct it, and participate in the long-term journey of transforming our political culture and infusing our public institutions with dignity and respect in a communal search for a common good.
When we wish to see more respect from others, we start by practicing respectfulness among ourselves. And so, in the midst of so much incivility during this election season, let us promote and practice a season of civility. We can reshape our society, and by God’s grace, it can start today.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).