The last few weeks of news have included President Trump’s verbal attack on the hosts of “Morning Joe” and his literal, although fake, attack on a figure representing CNN. This follows recent controversies over entertainment figures joking about assassination and displaying a decapitated head meant to resemble the president.
While mockery and ridicule have long been a part of our politics, they have come to dominate what passes for political discourse today. After all, it’s easier to dismiss the opposition with a symbolic body-slam than to listen to their opinions or work to find common ground.
We know that this trend toward hyper-partisanship has undermined the effectiveness of Congress in recent years. Legislating has ground to a halt. Obstructionism has become the new normal. Ordinary Americans disdain their own representatives and elected officials distrust their own colleagues.
In the past, leaders of both parties have been able to reach across the partisan divide. They succeeded by retaining their own humanity and recognizing the same in their political opponents. They embraced a sense of decency in their lives and politics that is often missing today.
The stories of our most successful legislators contain common elements of compassion, kindness and trust: The Congressman who prayed at the bedside of the nearly-slain president of the opposite party and went on to forge an historic partnership with him; the Senators who rallied across the aisle to the cause of suicide prevention after a fellow Senator’s son took his own life; an alcoholic Congressman who sponsored an alcoholic Senator from the opposite party as he took his first steps toward sobriety.
Moreover, these rivals, who managed to put aside partisanship, passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Mental Health Parity Act, the Child Safety Act, and the Violence Against Women Act –- some of the most transformational legislation in recent history. Through collaboration, these politicians did what somehow seems impossible today: they reached across the aisle with civility and compassion and found common ground.
Perhaps the recent shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and others in a park in Alexandria, Virginia, provides an opportunity for those of us who serve in Congress to rediscover our own compassion and sense of decency. Perhaps they will enable us to look at our political opponents not as “bad” people, but as fellow-Americans equally committed to a future of hope and accomplishment. This will require us to extend the compassion and concern shown to Rep. Scalise and his fellow victims long after the sound of the gunshots has faded. Instead of a one-time demonstration of decency and humanity, it will require an ongoing commitment.
The truth is that searching for our commonality instead of our differences could transform our dysfunctional politics. President Teddy Roosevelt recognized this, saying that “the most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency.” The true heroes of American democracy are those who have rejected partisanship and pedantry and, usually out of the spotlight, accomplished what democracy was designed to do. By making friends and sharing confidences, these men and women poured their humanity into their lawmaking for the good of our country and its citizens.
In some ways, “decency” is a hazy concept; we know it when we see it. We are uplifted by stories of decency ― especially in politics, so often fraught with ambition and ego-driven competition. When the norm is decency, other virtues can thrive: integrity, honesty, compassion, kindness and trust. Relationships are stronger so politicians are more apt to work across the aisle. Rhetoric is less divisive, coalitions are more diverse, and dialogue is more frequent. In some ways, political decency is a sign of a healthy democracy, but in other ways it is the cause of it. Whichever the starting point, decency unites, it inspires, it brings out our strengths and shores up our weaknesses.
Our political system has been bankrupted by the failures of Congress to act in ways that give meaning to the struggles our constituents endure. We must reject the politics of meanness and contempt that increasingly dominate our airwaves and Internet. This will require us to recommit ourselves to a mission of service ― with integrity, compassion, kindness and trust as our guides. Such a politics of decency may seem beyond our reach today, but it’s never too late to start.