We are flooded with warnings of the destruction that will be done to the country if this or that candidate is elected–I’ve issued a few of these warnings myself and don’t particularly regret it–but it’s not even Nov. 8th and I wonder what damage has already been done to the country during this presidential campaign. Sure, I realize the national debt has probably gone up another trillion dollars (who’s counting anymore?). I’m not talking about that kind of damage to the country. I’m not referring to defense cuts or the number of terrorist attacks or any kind of damage that can be measured. I’m talking about the disintegration of civility, the trashing of manners, and with them our relationships. If the glue that holds us together breaks down, what can any political leader do for us? That kind of damage.
The 2016 election cycle has been unlike anything I’ve observed in my lifetime, most notably for the incivility and divisiveness it has inspired between political parties, within political parties, and even within families and circles of friends. In a Facebook poll I asked, “Have you experienced strained relationships and/or lost friendships because of differences surrounding the 2016 presidential elections?” As of this writing, the “yes” replies outnumber “no” replies 61 to 21.
It’s no recent development that politicians as a matter of strategy sometimes attempt to create divisions in order to solidify support and demonize opponents. But, must we cooperate? Investigative journalist, James O’Keefe, revealed just this week the extent to which some operatives have gone to create strife and convert it into political yardage. Caught on video are those boasting of having paid people to attend opponents’ political events for the purpose of instigating physical assaults. I’m embarrassed that people I know posted the footage of these assaults online, relishing that their political enemies “got what was coming to ’em.”
Dozens of emails that run the ideological gamut find their way into my inbox daily (regrettably). Subject lines like “They are at it again” and “Don’t let them get away with this Shawn” make it clear the opponent, whoever he/she may be, is enemy to all things good, true, and beautiful. To let anything stand in my way of standing in their way is practically a form of treason. Or so I should think. The mere existence of these demons calls for action and an urgent gift of $500, $250, or $100.
If this kind of thing has always been a part of politics, when did we start accepting it? I hear no outcry from the American people. We seem to be past that. Once a gasp, then a sigh, now a yawn. The only outrage is the false outrage we display when the other side gets caught. When we see it on our own side we dare not condemn it and risk handing the enemy an edge. We’ve grown accustomed to scorched-earth politics and ends-justify-the-means campaign ethics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with our accepting it. Sooner or later, we will embrace it and make it our own.
When we encounter the “unenlightened” in our workplaces, in our churches and schools, even at our kitchen tables we have a job to do. We’ve learned new methods from the masters themselves. It’s no longer about the art of persuasion and the things that come with it such as listening, a calm, civil, and logical exchange of ideas, and even some goodhearted humor from time to time to remind ourselves we are all friends. No. Surely you’ve noticed that for a growing number of people, the rules have changed.
Anger and insults! That’s the prescription. If Bob’s neighbor happens to be supporting Bob’s candidate’s evil opponent — well, do the math. Bob’s neighbor can only be an “idiot”, a “moron,” possibly “Hitler,” and should maybe have his teeth kicked in. Bob’s neighbor, before becoming Hitler, used to mow Bob’s yard and gather his mail when he was on vacation.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending Bob’s neighbor’s decision nor Bob’s neighbor’s candidate (who might in fact be as evil as Bob says he is and maybe even as evil as Bob’s candidate himself). The question is whether Bob and his neighbor are wise in sacrificing their friendship as an offering to their political idols? Are those idols even worthy of such a costly sacrifice? Incidentally, when the new crop of idols emerges two or four years from now, who will be left to toss upon the flames?
In the midst of an intense primary campaign last winter, one of my teenagers was asked what he had been learning. I found his answer remarkable. Having by that time spoken to thousands of voters in South Carolina both in person and over the phone, his reply drew a connection between the temperament of the candidate and that of his voter. As a rule, the ruder the candidate, the ruder his supporter. Makes perfect sense. When it comes to kindness and civility, how can we ask someone to exceed his candidate? What we accept in those aspiring to office today is what we should expect to see in ourselves tomorrow (though we may not recognize it for what it is).
Each person who cares deeply about politics and understands the importance of choosing good leaders might do well to ask a couple questions: Do I accept the notion that relationships are collateral damage in the war of politics? Or will I insist on a higher standard for myself, hoping to help lead a return to civility with the understanding that relationships transcend politics and are the glue that holds communities together?
For those like me who need to do better, the Apostle Paul offers words to live by in Galatians 5, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (NIV). No mention of putting those on hold around election time.