The most negative election in modern U.S. history has come to a close, but Americans are fed up. Sixty-three percent claim incivility is a "major problem" 55 percent expect it to get worse. Yet, by all accounts negative campaigning is still effective among those same voters. What gives?
Cable television campaign ads increased this year from 2008 by 43 percent. The candidates combined for over 1,000,000 television ads, with a record 4 out of 5 being negative. President Obama topped Governor Romney 86 percent to 79 percent in negative ads, according to the Wesleyan Media Project's research.
Some argue that negative ads help distinguish one candidate from another. But this cynical approach creates a general campaign narrative of good versus evil. Real issues and the good of the other candidate get buried beneath slanderous rhetoric that reduces the public square to squalor. But "we the people" offer a collective shrug.
Americans despise the negativity but endure it. We're tired of the cynical rhetoric, but are swayed by it. We roll our eyes, but contribute to the negative narrative as we tweet through the debates. Our national indifference toward and passive participation in the negative campaigning suggests a shift in our national values: from virtue to vice.
The Higher Way
As a free society, we bare the responsibility to uphold certain characteristics vital to societal and human flourishing. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "There can be no high civility without high morality." Emerson equates our national civility with virtue, which the New Oxford Dictionary defines as "behavior showing high moral standards."
Does our lack of virtue in the public square suggest our morality has sunk to new lows? Our behavioral patterns belie the answer. Philosopher and writer Will Durant famously summarized Aristotle by saying, "We are what we repeatedly do." If we act with incivility it is because we have acquiesced to a lower morality. Excellence and virtue are byproducts of righteousness. If we reflect on our culture's penchant for the provocative, salacious and dishonest we uncover the fruit of the American ethos.
Kant defines moral conduct like this: "Act always so that the immediate motive of thy will may become a universal rule for all intelligent beings." Our motives for public office should stand as a life rubric for the greater public. After all, leadership can be measured by influence. How are our highest leaders influencing others to live, to run their businesses or to raise their children?
"Everything good in man," writes Emerson, "leans on what is higher." The greatest testimony to our national leadership would be for us to discuss how our political arena has risen to a new high. Instead, we lament the opposite. What must we do to restore virtue in the national narrative?
We must, first of all, strive to live a virtuous life. Inherent in this high moral pursuit lies the humility to confidently serve others. It's incumbent upon each citizen to not only care for their family but for one another as neighbors and fellow sojourners in life. This perspective stands in contradistinction to the popular entitlement mentality -- the "me first" attitude that undermine virtue.
Next, our leaders must reevaluate how they lead. National polling dominated the media as both parties used public opinion to craft their message. Margaret Thatcher rightly said that consensus is the absence of leadership. Leaders must begin leaning on principles, not polls. A person who attempts to lead from consensus is no leader. They are, rather, a facilitator brokering the desires of the masses for personal gain.
Virtuous leadership is not predicated on zeitgeist but the unchanging soul of humankind. Humans thrive on excellence of action -- courage, prudence, faith, and hope. Virtues stir our hearts and our soul; we're hardwired for the soulish things of this world.
Revived Civility, Renewed Virtue
The Hebrew Scriptures provide an example of political leadership in Nehemiah. The Jewish Governor, served 12 years in the Persian government while he engaged in the massive community project of rebuilding Jerusalem's wall. Persian law provided Nehemiah a substantial budget to entertain Jewish and Persian officials as well as general funds into his personal treasury. But he refused his right as governor in order to serve the community, in essence relieving the tax pressure from the citizens.
Nehemiah's example displays the virtuous leadership our country so desperately needs: a leader who focuses more on people and principles than politics.
We cannot expect high civility from our national leaders or our own public discourse until we return to the high pursuit of virtuous leading and living. It's time to do the hard work of the good, the beautiful work of the virtue.