- By: Scott Miller, Fresno Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman and Owner of Gazebo Gardens
Let’s face it – American politics is frequently impolite, and has been since the dawn of the Republic. That’s not always a bad thing. Vigorous dissent and debate are the most basic elements of what makes our system of politics the most successful in the world. But when is it all too much? Too often (especially during political years like this one) vigorous debate devolves into petty name calling, obfuscation, and truth – stretching.
As I mentioned, this stuff not unique to our generation. Abraham Lincoln was described by Harper’s Weekly as a “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher, and Land-Pirate.” DANG. Sam Houston once said of Thomas Green “He has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty”. Ooh, that one must have hurt. In 1884 Grover Cleveland faced a paternity scandal and was taunted with the chant, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” The thing is, I bet none of this ever helped anyone other than the folks selling newspapers. It certainly never helped voters get to the truth.
During my lifetime, I’ve heard the presidents of the country I love described variously as “senile”, “greedy”, “evil”, “stupid”, “crook”, and “philanderer”. The same things have been said about pretty much every elected official at every level of government. These things have been said by people I know and love – basically good people who get frustrated with the direction of government and feel disenfranchised in some way. That doesn’t make it right. We don’t always have to like the things our government does, and we should fight like crazy for what we believe in, but we should have more respect for our community and ourselves than to act this way.
In spite of our rich history of nastiness, it appears as if the situation may actually be getting worse. A 2010 study by Allegheny College found that nearly half of Americans believe civility is in decline. Because the immediacy of the internet creates a situation where people can create and consume editorial content in real time, disagreements can be blown out of proportion at light speed. It’s now often not enough just to disagree with someone. Instead, political disagreements have become gross exercises in personal destruction: Opponents are vilified — even within the same political party — and there’s no room for compromise on just about anything.
The same study found that 87 percent of Americans think people can respectfully disagree and 95 percent believe civility is important to our democracy. Another finding was that nearly three-quarters of Americans had “tuned out” government because of the ugly tone. If these things are true, we’ve got to do better. Our country and our region have too many important questions to answer in the near future.
The path around this mess is simple: It starts with each one of us deciding to stick to the topics that matter. Let’s worry less about where President Obama was born and more about whether his ideas will work. I don’t care about Boehner’s tan, Pelosi’s facelift, Gingrich’s wives, or how much Romney likes to fire people – I just want somebody to move the country forward. HSR is not a “train to nowhere” but there are legitimate questions about its funding and timing that need to be answered. We have a jail to fix, supervisors and city council positions to fill and I’m confident we can get through these issues without getting nasty if we choose to. We can do this. Let’s start today.