The 2012 campaign season has been a real mud fest. And, unlike with other extreme sports, no one seems to find this display entertaining. Ask almost anyone you run in to at the supermarket or neighborhood coffeehouse and they'll tell you they hate negative campaign ads and speeches.
In fact, a universal loathing of negativity may be the only thing upon which we all agree.
Unfortunately, much of the problem begins with us. The other night my husband David and I had dinner with friends who just happen to be Republicans. I asked David politely if we could have an "Obama-free evening." In other words, don't try and convince our friends that Obama is the better candidate. "Stay away from politics" I implored. Unfortunately, all roads lead to the economy and soon I found myself kicking my husband under the table. Ultimately there were two divergent opinions about the presidential race, but I didn't want to taint the evening with unnecessary conflict. I wondered later why it felt so uncomfortable. Why couldn't we agree to disagree? Why was I so worried about alienating our friends because our politics didn't align? Have we lost the ability to be calm and civil in the face of our differences?
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, national campaigns have been negative, but media coverage of campaigns has been even more negative. And where has the coverage been most biting and disrespectful? Social media. The modern town squares of Twitter, Facebook and the like -- where official and unofficial pundits can pontificate with impunity -- has brought some of the ugliest posts and exchanges. And of course, in the land of micro-blogs, any good quip will draw a chorus of hosannas.
I appreciate the ego-rush of attracting an adoring, albeit virtual and largely anonymous, crowd on social media as well as anyone. But preaching to the choir seems to be all anyone wants to do these days. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, both online and off, and insist that everyone else just "doesn't get it." We feed off one another's comments and pat ourselves on the back for being so insightful.
I've seen this intellectual incest in action. I'm a Democrat and so are many of my friends and many of their friends. I'm guilty of enjoying the comfortable glow that comes with engaging a simpatico crowd. However, I value my friends who are Republicans and Independents, who range in age from 30 to 70. Their lives are filled with different experiences, they have different perspectives and they have different needs from their elected officials. I like these folks, and even if I don't agree with them, I have to at least respect their views. The alternative is to avoid conversing with them about anything of importance. In other words, complain about negative political ads, but never discuss the content.
I like to think of myself as open-minded, although I -- as do most people -- have some positions that are non-negotiable. Still, I think we can all go a long way toward raising the bar on public discourse. At the risk of sounding like a middle-aged mom (which I am) let me offer a few suggestions:
•Be aware of the language you use when discussing issues and people. You can think a plan won't work, be offended by certain laws, or feel that a candidate lacks leadership skills without branding anything as un-American, cowardly, evil, corrupt, racist or stupid.
•Practice listening. You may not agree with another person's viewpoint, but you should be willing to hear why he or she holds those views. It's not your job to change anyone's mind.
•Get out of your cocoon. Groupthink encourages people to spout a prescribed narrative. Engaging in an honest exchange of ideas with people who may or may not believe as you do will help you develop your own intellectual and political muscles.
Maybe if we all begin to show one another a bit of respect -- or at least behave as though we've been taught manners at some point in our lives -- we can begin to moderate our national dialogue. It's worth a try. Regardless of who wins this election, I want to keep my friends, whether their state (of mind) is red or blue, right or left. As long as we can be respectful -- I'm willing to agree to disagree.
Tell me, have you experienced any political drama with friends or family?