During election years, pent-up frustrations, simmering animosities, and the toxic legacy of countless hours of hate talk radio erupt from the seething volcano of the American public. Injustice left festering explodes into anger and hatred. Defensive arrogance and condescension drips down the pyramid of privilege.
What should – and perhaps someday could – be a time of remarkable civic discourse, truth-telling, education, and public dialogue devolves into political shouting matches that leave millions of American citizens feeling bruised and abused, belligerent waiting for the next go-round of the elections to take vengeance on each other.
I am a member of the last generation of American children who received civics education in our public schools. Budget constraints and curriculum cuts have stripped our youth of access to knowledge not just about the three branches of government, the constitution, the electoral process, but also about the broader context of democracy, historically and worldwide. In the void of education, we learn from observing the current political climate – a circus of extreme wealth, party politics, manipulations, fraud, deceit, personality candidates, disempowerment of citizens, corporate sponsorship, name-calling, shaming, personal attacks, and the endless stream of broken campaign promises.
While this is, unfortunately, an accurate representation of how our dysfunctional political system currently operates, it also fails to articulate or embody the values of true democracy or of a democratic society.
As a child in a rural Maine public school, I learned about the nuanced discussions of democracy from the ancient Greeks through the founding fathers. I learned the shortcomings, foibles and follies of both the individual characters and the governing systems they produced. My memory of my civics courses evoke images of the white-clad suffragettes with sewn banners and African-Americans organizing nonviolent action that led toward civil rights and the Voting Rights Act. And, oddly, I have a persistent memory of a French woman in a cafe holding a lively discussion about politics and elections.
Where did this come from? One afternoon, a civics teacher invoked this semi-mythic figure to stimulate the half-glazed expressions in the classrooms. Politics should not be vitriolic or boring, our teacher told us, we should enjoy political discussions and consider them an essential part of the culture of a democratic society. By lunch, most of my classmates went back to talking about soccer or pop songs, but the lesson stuck with me.
This election cycle, as my fellow Americans froth at the mouth, I find this memory returning as I interact online and in person. Why is it so hard for us to have a passionate – not scornful or vituperative – conversation about politics? Has respectful discourse, like civics, fallen by the wayside of American education? Are we trained only in argument, attack, humiliation, screeching, vilifying, fear mongering, and other forms of verbal abuse?
This is unfortunate and dangerous. Discourse is the foundation of democracy. Even within the context of a representative republic, the ability to have a respectful, engaged, and informed conversation about politics – in the post office, our homes, on the media, with friends, family, or with total strangers – is essential for a society that prizes the ideals of liberty and freedom.
If we are not free to converse without being verbally assaulted, insulted, and screamed at, what does that say about the content of our characters? Why should any of us believe that shaming another citizen for their political choices is an effective approach to building the kind of political engagements and civic interest that greases the wheel of functional political process? Is it really so hard to engage in the practices of being curious about our differences, asking questions, listening, and responding in a sane and civil manner?
We can do better than the obnoxious and insulting manners we are currently displaying during this election cycle. These behaviors are beneath the dignity of a nation that claims to be a democracy and professes to have operated as one for 240 years.
If there is one political action every American should take between now and November, it is to lift our heads with greater dignity and treat our fellow Americans with respect. Regardless of others, our own self-respect should demand such action. We can engage in functional civic dialogue. There is no need to wait for the “leadership” of politicians, parties, pundits or press. In our own lives and interactions, we can discuss politics in a way that uplifts the dignity of all.