We are constantly bombarded with political messages – this guy good, that guy bad – of very little value. Empty messages, those with only the rhetorical value of firing up the base, those that proclaim in stark terms US GOOD, THEM BAD, are a significant reason why yelling and name-calling passes as political discourse in our broader political culture. It is a problem that the mass media amplifies and perpetuates when it gives regular airtime to the name-callers and doom-sayers. But if you were to take a more microscopic look at political discourse and turn down the fuzz a bit, you might find that on a local level, the nature of political discourse isn’t that bad, even if you peruse local letters to the editor.
Now, the internet is a wild and insane place. I call it a place, for though it may not exist in a literal and real sense – you can’t go to the internet and sit down for a beer – it does provide a locus – or loci – where people of similar and divergent viewpoints to commiserate and debate or to spew exceedingly vile invective. There are places online where political debate is civil, regular, and not about name-calling or propagating hate. However, and these always seem to be the types of things that get attention, there are also plenty of places where people unleash the lesser of their beings. Comments sections on news pieces are notoriously awful for political discourse; what passes for political chatter usually encompasses “X is a Y and nothing Z tells me is going to convince me otherwise.”
However, in public the discourse is usually much more civil, though equally passionate. You can chalk that up to a variety of factors, but I would easily suspect that the lack of anonymity in being a raging jackass in public has a significant role to play in the relative moderation of public discourse. Last night I went to a public forum hosted by Virginia State Senator John Edwards and Delegate Sam Rasoul. The forum covered the recently concluded session of the Virginia General Assembly, going over legislation passed, legislation failed, and other proposed items. The crowd was largely friendly, but there were people who had concerns that needed to be addressed by their duly elected representatives. Last night was a brilliant look at what Senator Tip O’Neill made into a famous aphorism: all politics is local. Ultimately, the people have needs and desires that can not always be addressed in the private sector, either because of the lack of resources or lack of cooperation. Effective representatives are those who are able to meet those unmet needs. A woman seeking help in dealing with the local VA Hospital appealed passionately to her representatives – and respectfully. A man who recently moved to the area to help take care of an aging relative needed help with understanding why Medicaid required 33% (give or take a couple percent) of his relative’s income to go to medical bills before Medicaid coverage began. He was understandably frustrated, but respectful.
And the legislators – the people’s representatives – were respectful and empathetic to the concerns of their constituents. These are effective interactions. Literal finger-pointing and name-calling does nothing to further anyone. Effective interactions, interactions of civility and respect, yield results. What does name-calling do? Sure, it makes the name-caller feel good and inflates their ego, but it poisons the well. No one – for good reason – would be willing to put effort into working with someone who tells people that they are a stinky, smelly Communist (as an example). Disagreement is good. Compromise to achieve a good is good. Name-calling? Pointless. Ineffective.
I remember once in college, while I was in student government, I was dragged through the mud personally and publicly and without any warning. It was humiliating. The person who reamed me later told me, “it’s not personal, it’s politics.” For the longest time, I accepted that. I accepted the poisoned well as something that needed to exist. But as I grew older, I realized that you just can’t be a raging jerk to people in public and then expect them to work with you in private. That’s not a positive interaction. Rebuke in private and respectfully disagree in public.
Maybe people higher up could stand to learn from watching interactions like those we had last night.