How can Americans make political debates more civil and relevant to the issues at stake?
It's here. It's really here. The presidential election, I mean. And if you like politics or love it as I do, then this is the best of times ... and the worst.
The best of times because this is, in part, what democracy is about. We get to see the candidates almost as often as we want to, or perhaps more than we want to if we live in Iowa or New Hampshire. And while the attack ads get old and the applause lines get stale, this is as good a time as any to remember that in parts of the world right now, people are dying for what we have. There are places where — even when the so-called leaders make a show of going through the process — there's no assurance that the choice of the people will be respected or even acknowledged. It's important to remember that.
Why the worst of times? Back again to the attack ads, attack lines and applause lines. Some of this stuff can seem awfully small at a time when the issues are so big.
And even though I've covered politics for a long time, I was never on the inside. I've never worked on — let alone run — a campaign, except my own for president of the fourth grade, which I lost. And I was never invited to any of those boozy late-night gabfests I keep hearing about in movies and novels about politics ... you know, the ones where the politicians spill their guts and tell their favored confidants how they have to go through all this trivia so they can do the people's business?
Like I said, I've never been to any of those, so I don't know how it is decided that someone should go out and demand an apology for some fake thing that isn't really a thing ... or that that somebody should get outraged over somebody bringing up something that is in fact true ... or, conversely, why some people don't get more mad about something that would make anybody mad. I don't really know.
But I do know this: One of the hard parts here is that one person's trivia is another person's big deal. And elections are in part about reaching consensus on what really matters.
These days, there has been much discussion about how polarized and uncivil our politics have become. And I can vouch for how unpleasant it can be to be on the receiving end of a committed antagonist ... or two or three.
And yet, it is a measure of what this country is: that the incivility that was a part of everyday conversation not too long ago — racial slurs, gender insults and attacks on people's sexuality, among other things — has, in fact, gone underground, or is at least no longer acceptable in public discourse.
What about the ideas that that kind of language represents? Well, it can't have all disappeared, or the language would have, too. But language is a mark of what a culture will and won't tolerate. And if the ideas need to be debated, then so be it. Debating unpleasant questions is exactly what should be done with them.
Equally pervasive and troubling are the attacks on people's motives. You can set a stopwatch by how quickly someone will accuse someone else of holding a certain point of view because he or she is getting paid to do so.
But once again, it's better to ask the question and hear the answer than to fail to ask and assume. Which brings me back to the campaign. I, for one, have appreciated the debates so far. I didn't catch every one, but I was grateful for the opportunity to hear what these candidates had to say for themselves and about each other.
Now I'd like to hear from you. If you could wave a wand and make these conversations more productive, how would you do it? Ban personal attacks? Require personal attacks? Require all debates to take place with schoolkids onstage, so the candidates would have to be reminded whom this is for?
Drop us a line. And let's see what we come up with.