The biggest complaint I hear about the state of American politics isn’t that Washington DC is out of touch with the voters (though that’s a close second). It’s that our political discourse has become so reflexively nasty and divisive that issues can no longer be discussed rationally, and thus not be effectively addressed.
I agree. As a society we’ve regressed into a soundbite-driven culture where there is rarely a good-faith effort put forth to understand the other side of an argument. People are demonized for political disagreement, and attributed the worst possible of motivations for holding a particular view. The loudest, angriest voices tend to take center-stage, and opportunistic politicians are more than happy to feed off of the rancor…or even lead it.
The most glaring examples of this societal strife seem to come in the wake of unspeakable tragedies and appalling acts of violence that rock our nation. The terrorist attack in Orlando last week was no exception. While DC politicians were tossing acrimony back and forth, my friends on social media (including some who rarely discuss politics) were similarly trashing each other with heated, overly personal rhetoric on gun control, terrorism, and immigration.
Emotions understandably run rampant after incidents like this, and the knee-jerk inclination of many people is to demand a swift legal response that will hopefully prevent such an act from ever happening again. To them, the answer is simple, morally just, and eclipsing of any legal nuances that may apply. Thus, those putting forth a conflicting diagnosis, a non-legislative solution, or an unwelcome complication like constitutional rights are often viewed as heartless obstructionists — or worse: enablers of the type of people who would commit such violence.
The finger-pointing, demagoguery, and political exploitation that follow rarely lead to any actual remedies. They just create more hard feelings and spawn more social division. Nothing gets fixed, and the cycle starts all over again, once the next disaster strikes.
So here’s a question: Can Americans break the cycle? Can they approach serious, emotionally-trying problems and achieve practical solutions that don’t stoke more division?
It’s tough to see how, especially when the nation’s top leaders, and those currently vying for the White House, have campaigned so successfully off of anger and fragmentation.
Still, a person can dream and try and come up with some ideas. One popped into my head the other day…
One of the regular points of contention with the legislation that lawmakers advance in response to a horrific event is that the legislation would have never prevented the event from happening in the first place.
For example, Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, who led a filibuster last week on new gun-control measures, bolstered his case for the bills by saying, “Ask yourself what can you do to make sure that Orlando or Sandy Hook never ever happens again.”
He was then interviewed by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl over the weekend, and wasn’t able to explain how the bills in question would have stopped either the Orlando or Sandy Hook shootings. The truth, as Karl pointed out, is that they wouldn’t have. Yet, Murphy had no problem invoking specific instances of mass-murder to infer that lawmakers opposed to the bills were failing the protect citizens from the same fate as the victims.
That kind of underhandedness is a prime example of division being needlessly stoked, rather than solutions being created. It ties people’s passions to false premises, and turns people with logical objections into villains. If Senator Murphy believes that his legislation can potentially save lives, he should just say that, and make a case for it. Channeling victims that wouldn’t have been helped by it is dishonest, exploitative, and shameful.
Another example, from the other side of the aisle, came from presidential candidate Donald Trump, who used the Orlando attack to further justify his proposal of a ban on immigration from Syria and other countries with ties to terrorism. The problem, of course, is that the Orlando killer was an American citizen born in this country. No immigration ban would have stopped him. It was another false solution to a serious problem, and the victims in the Orlando attack shouldn’t have been exploited in an attempt to substantiate it.
Here’s my idea:
Imagine voters coming up with a written commitment (maybe called “The Victim Anti-Exploitation Pledge”) that they insisted their elected representatives sign. Imagine that pledge committing candidates and incumbents to abstaining from identifying victims with proposed legislation that wouldn’t have reasonably helped protect those victims.
The pledge could state in no uncertain terms that if you’re putting forth a bill to keep potential victims safe, you don’t get to promote it on the backs of real victims whose fate wouldn’t have been changed because of it. If you’re going to invoke specific sufferers or fatalities to justify legislation, you need to demonstrate precisely how it would have helped those individuals. And if a lawmaker who signed the pledge later broke it, he or she would be subject to a public censure from either their colleagues (who also signed the bill) or their constituents.
Sure, some would argue that the validity of a link between cause and effect would be subjective, but that’s usually not the case. As one can see from the Murphy interview, the irrelevance of legislation to a particular event is typically established pretty quickly, under even a small amount of scrutiny.
Of course, the pledge could not be legally binding. The point wouldn’t be to infringe on one’s First Amendment rights. The point would be to hold lawmakers accountable, and keep them focused on solving problems, rather than demagoguing their way past them for other purposes. And it would certainly be telling to listen to the explanation of lawmakers who refused to sign it.
If our elected leaders were meaningfully pressured to qualify their conduct when addressing sensitive issues, the civility that comes from it might just trickle down to the electorate and possibly even the media. We’d be a more cordial country. We’d also get a lot more done in Washington.
Of course, this would only work if voters, in large numbers, insisted upon it. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Not enough people are engaged in politics, and a number of constituencies actually rely on false premises (and problems never being solved) in order to achieve purely ideological victories. Sadly, those types of victories — fueled by a sanctimonious sense of self-worth — are good enough for some people. They shouldn’t be good enough, however, for those who actually want problems fixed.
In a perfect model of representative government, elections themselves (and possibly term limits) would deal with this situation. Unfortunately, a detached electorate allows for indecent behavior to flourish. A pledge (with humiliating consequences for breaking it) might tone down some of that behavior.
Again, this will never happen…but like I said, one can always dream.