DAVID ADLER: Improving civil dialogue in the November election

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The end of the primary season in Idaho affords an opportunity for candidates and voters to catch their breath before we plunge into the general election campaigns. It affords as well time for reflection on the ugliness and incivility that characterized some races, and steps that may be taken to improve the quality of civil dialogue in the months ahead.

First, let’s stop the practice of political labeling. The practice of endorsing or dismissing an idea merely because it is liberal or conservative is a lazy way of avoiding the work of citizenship, which requires analysis of the merits of laws, policies, programs and proposals. In fact, the practice is simplistic, circular and little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Political labeling ignores the fact that views and values are shifting in response to ever-changing circumstances in a fast-paced world in which policy responses to emerging challenges require compromise.

Worse, labeling provides a pass to candidates who learn that they can woo and win an audience vulnerable to descriptions and judgments grounded in ideological characterizations. Indeed, we voters should expect candidates to explain the reasoning that supports their positions on issues.

Anything less violates a central principle of democracy — that governmental officials are accountable to the electorate. Accordingly, it is the duty of those who seek or hold office to answer questions so that voters are fully informed. The occasional response from a candidate — “I’m not going to talk about that” — does not pass muster in a nation governed by republican principles. Voters’ questions should be fair, of course, and candidates should patiently and fully explain their positions.

The quality of civic dialogue requires as well an abiding respect for facts and evidence, and rejection of distortion, demagoguery and snake oil. Nothing is accomplished through resort to straw man arguments. Fooling people into embracing arguments and positions is a hollow victory. Such fraudulent tactics contradict the premise of winning “consent” from one’s fellow citizens since people who are deceived are hardly consenting to something.

Let’s agree to avoid the politics of destruction. Politics is not war, and words are not bullets. It is wise to recall that in a democracy, which is fluid and reflective of changing views, that today’s opponents may be tomorrow’s allies. Bad faith and destruction preclude compromise, which is the engine that makes the political system work. We can and should be tough on issues, but tender toward people.

The effort to demonize or destroy those who differ with our views tends to curb interest in politics, undermines political participation and exacerbates voter apathy and cynicism. At a juncture when voter participation is declining, it is important to remember that in a democracy, we seek social conditions that encourage participation and honest give-and-take in the discussion of policies, programs and laws.

As we strive for a better, more civil and informed dialogue on the issues of central concern to Idahoans in the forthcoming election, let’s avoid slang and terms that are dehumanizing. Let’s speak of “undocumented immigrants” rather than “illegals,” a pejorative characterization that may appeal to a segment of voters but nonetheless debases their human existence, and ignores the valuable work that they perform and the many contributions that they make to our society, culture and economy.

Let’s ask candidates to resuscitate the practice of common courtesy and civil tones, and refer to others, where appropriate, as Mr. and Ms.

Let’s hope, as well, that candidates do not misrepresent the views of their opponents, a practice that serves only the cause of confusion and deliberate distortion. Rather, let us hear from candidates a fair representation of their opponents’ views and why they disagree with them.

If we can implement but a few of these ideas, we’ll all feel better about our political campaigns when November arrives.

• • •

David Adler, Ph.D., is president of the Alturas Institute, created to advance the Constitution, civic education and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution, the presidency and the Bill of Rights.

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