By Robert Leikind
The 2016 elections season exposed deep and painful rifts between the haves and the have nots, red and blue states, liberals and conservatives, some whites and some people of color, rural and urban populations, and many more opinion blocs from across the country. One might view this as a sign of a vigorous and healthy democracy. However, the tone and content of the pre-election day discourse left many Americans, especially many minorities, shaken and skeptical about the health of our democracy and its capacity to keep them safe and free.
Tensions arising from ethnic, religious, racial, gender and/or differences of sexual orientation are not new to our nation. In recent months, however, we have witnessed a sharp uptick in hate crimes and acts of bigotry, as some national leaders have abandoned a commitment to ordinary civility and signaled that open expression of contempt for others is, again, a legitimate form of political speech. Put differently, some feel it is more advantageous to demonize and delegitimize those who do not share your views than to find ways to engage with them.
This erosion of civility is not only a threat to those who now find themselves in the crosshairs of some of their neighbors. It is a threat to our democratic way of life. We need to act to restore civility before grievous harm endangers the ideals that bind the diverse peoples of our nation. Here are three understandings that may help us get there.
1. Democracy is built on discourse and debate. Our constitution guarantees freedom of speech. Everyone gets to have an opinion, no matter how ill-informed or unpopular. So, debate and disagreement are inevitable. The problem arises when political discourse becomes so degraded that leaders and their public lose tolerance for a diversity of opinion, and attempt to suppress and overwhelm other voices. As is now happening, people begin to doubt the capacity of government to represent their views and lose confidence in their government leaders.
2. Democracy requires compromise. Totalitarian societies do not depend upon the consent of the governed. Instead, rulers are able to impose their will, and those who disagree generally have limited or no recourse. Democracies are different. They have to find ways to reconcile diverse opinions, and we look to legislative bodies to help us do this. In recent years, however, the capacity for compromise has been degraded. In fact, some members of the United States Congress refuse civil discourse on controversial issues, and condemn colleagues who entertain compromise.
3. Compromise is not consent. It is recognition that in a democracy, we cannot always have things exactly as we would choose them to be. Today, many of our nation’s elected leaders think differently. They insist that “compromise” is a dirty word and are ready to fight for their ideals, even if it means paralyzing our government. One can respect that a person has deep commitment to his or her values. Yet, if everyone places adherence to principle over discourse and compromise then our democratic institutions will fail. The toxic political environment in which we now live provides ample evidence of this.
For 110 years, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has worked to foster an America that is guided by democratic values, an America which is committed to securing the freedom of all its citizens without regard to characteristics, such as race or religion, that have traditionally inspired invidious discrimination.
Our nation has struggled to be a more just society and we have made important gains. Today a climate of incivility and intolerance challenges the vitality of our democratic institutions and the ideals on which they depend. It is time to take seriously the need to restore civil discourse and rebuild a living, breathing center in American political life where people meet, debate, and work out problems together. It can and must be done.
AJC New England
December 1, 2016