05/25/2010 10:40 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Recipe for Civil Political Discourse

Is it possible to have a civil and substantive conversation about politics between people of differing (opposing!) ideologies these days? It sure doesn't seem like it if you read the increasingly over-the-top blogosphere, listen to the hyperbolic talk radio, and watch the overblown 24/7 cable new channels. The result is a truly toxic "mocktail" that is poisonous to our political system and our country as a whole. And the taste, though apparently appealing to many, is pure swill to me (though, admittedly, I have drunk from this Sirens-like concoction periodically in the past)!

I think there are several causes for the popularity of this vile potion. First, though it is a sad reflection on our culture, mean-spiritedness is highly profitable; its purveyors and conveyors get rich just like the peddlers of yore who hawked their miraculous elixirs. Second, it has the magical ability to transform anxiety and fear into righteous indignation and anger, both much more palatable emotions. Third, the anonymity of the blogosphere gives people license to say anything they wish with impunity. Finally, several good swigs of this witch's brew immediately provides scapegoats for the ills in our society, thus relieving the drinker of culpability and the resulting angst.

I experienced this lethal blend first hand many times over, most recently in response to a blog post I wrote. Another blogger responding to it on another web site not only missed the entire point of my post, he also cherry picked quotes from my post to justify his vitriolic diatribe. Not surprisingly, he began a feeding frenzy on my cyber-carcass among the blogosphere commentariat that included ad hominem attacks on my intelligence, profession, and competence.

This kind of response can found on just about every politically oriented web site from the far Left to the far Right and any other political ideologies that lie outside the traditional political spectrum. But what people who drink this evil draft don't realize is that, with such off-substance reactions, they belittle themselves as much as they demean the supposed targets of their ire. These "inebriated" bloviators make themselves look childish, petty, and weak of argument.

Despite these frequent reactions of the worst kind, I continue to wade right back into cyber-swamp because I believe that civil and substantive discussions between those of different stripes are not only possible, but essential to our democracy. And it is possible. I've had enlightened and enlightening exchanges with fiscal and social conservatives and libertarians over the past few months, both in person, by email, and on my blogs. The experience is deeply rewarding and almost otherworldly (mainly because it doesn't seem to occur often in our world). Such an elixir could be a cure for the powerful toxins that are currently afloat in America's body politic.

The recipe for meaningful dialogue between those of opposing viewpoints has only a few ingredients, but the ingredients are hard to come by and finding just the right quantities of each is a challenge.

Here is my recipe:

  • Start with a scoop of mutual respect.
  • Sprinkle in a dollop of open mindedness.
  • Add in a spoonful of patient listening.
  • Pour in a skosh of levity.
  • Don't let any preconceived notions slip in.
  • Be sure ego doesn't accidently get poured into the mix.
  • Finish the concoction off with a very large helping of equanimity.

The result? A richly flavorful and satisfying brew for all those who partake.

Once this tonic took hold between myself and my ideological counterparts, some surprising results occurred. Once our minds were open and our emotions were in check, we were able to get past our ideological talking points and we actually found that we had a lot in common. We learned that, though we may differ in some ways, we share in others, for example, we value hard work, integrity, justice, responsibility, and compassion. When we focused on what we agreed instead of on what we disagreed, we each realized that the other was not Satan incarnate, but rather a decent person and an American much more alike than different. Of course, there were further disagreements on specific issues and policies, but we usually agreed to disagree and allowed each other to make our cases. The result? Greater understanding of those issues and policies and even some unexpected consensus.

We can disagree, for sure; that's part of a vital democracy. But when we imbibe the foul beverage that seems to be the drink of choice among many Americans and act under its influence, we lose something more fundamental than our democracy. We lose our reason and our humanity.

So, let's toast with (and drink a lot more of) this new and refreshing cocktail. Cheers!

BTW, be on the look out for my post a week from today in which I am going to propose a National Civil Discourse Day to be held on September 15th of this year (my late mother's birthday). The goal is, for that one day, along all forms of media, for everyone, from Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on the Left to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the Right on down to the most anonymous members of the blogosphere, to engage only in civil and respectful discourse. I will ask for everyone who is tired of the current tone of conversation and who values calm and reasoned dialogue to help me get the day to go viral.