The Tucson, Arizona, rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead, and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, we need more civility in our politics. But no, we should not use one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence to trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.
I confess, having written in 2008 Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting at one of Gifford’s “Congress on Your Corner” citizen meet-and-greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol in general, and Republicans in particular. The fact that Sarah Palin’s website featured Giffords’s district in crosshairs in in 2010, supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.
Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those particular critics with Kennedy’s murder.
Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words. The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for open field, campagne. With contemporary soldiers fighting sustained efforts, often on the wide country terrain, the term quickly acquired its military association. The political connotation emerged in seventeenth-century England to describe a lengthy legislative session. In nineteenth-century America, “campaign” was part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering: as the party standard bearer, a war horse tapping into his war chest and hoping not to be a flash-in-the-pan—a cannon that misfires—mobilized the rank-and-file with a rallying cry in battleground states to vanquish their enemies.
In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt rallied the troops—his Democratic supporters—by saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.” In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama himself, telegraphed toughness at the start of his campaign, saying of his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”
“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rival candidates is not the problem. As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone, and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably. Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.
There is too much shouting in American politics today, from left and right, against George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Too many Americans have forgotten George Washington’s enlightenment teaching that his reason could lead him to one conclusion, while someone else’s reason could lead, reasonably, to an opposite conclusion. Politics becomes scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one with-me-or-against-me worldview. As a Democrat who opposes gun control, Gabrielle Giffords herself refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s colorful former Mayor Ed Koch, once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”
To our credit, most Americans understand when to holster partisan anger—even righteous indignation. And Americans excel at mounting the patriotic tableaus we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on Election Night 2008 when John McCain and Barack Obama spoke so graciously of each other, and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.
“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity, a reminder of the humanity of one’s opponent, and an appreciation for the enduring values, common history, and shared fate that bind fellow citizens together. If within that solid consensus parties quarrel over economic theories, policy details, leaders’ personalities, or government’s exact dimensions, that is natural and healthy. It is the slash and burn, all or nothing, red versus blue, my way or the highway rhetoric that has been so unnatural and unhealthy. Political parties work when they help individuals solve problems together; coalition building works best when people have a range of affiliations, when people might pray together one morning and go to competing political meetings that night. Political parties become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a series of reinforcing elements that pit half the country against the other half.
Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and “see how democracy works.” Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.
We should cultivate a politics of civility, not because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Gabrille Giffords’ lifework, and for our common good.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
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