Can We Cure the Toxicity in our Body Politic?

by Arley Johnson

Every month for the past couple of years, I’ve been hoping to report that Congress and the Administration had finally put aside the bizarre petty partisan squabbles we’ve had to witness. Instead I’ve had to report the wrangling that, every three or four months, has threatened to shut down our government and destroy the American economy. I wistfully contemplated commenting about a recent meeting at the White House where leaders from the U.S. Senate and House joined the President and agreed to set aside all purely political issues, a gathering focused on getting the economy moving again and creating millions of jobs. Of course, that hasn’t happened yet.

Worse, political conditions lead me to believe that in the present atmosphere, it’s not possible. In conversations, former elected officials and more seasoned political operatives have told me stories about an almost mythic time when congressional members, irrespective of party, and even while having visceral policy disagreements, were respectful to one another. In this almost forgotten past, it was apparently not unusual for members of different parties to socialize together at functions friendly enough to include their respective families. Tough as it is to believe, policy differences or party affiliation alone were not seen as reason enough for personal disdain. Compromise and open dialogue were the expected routine of governance. Debate was welcomed and honest points of view laced with facts during those dialogs were required and welcomed.

Casual observers would watch from the galleries of the House and Senate, impressed and entertained by American Democracy on full display. Foreign dignitaries could not help but be envious of the artful rules of procedure and spirited yet polite debate. Yes, evidently a certain decorum in speech and mannerisms was the norm. And these niceties were not just for show during floor debates, but flowed over into the cloak room and into committee rooms. Elected officials respected and understood that each member was chosen by their constituents in hard fought elections and represented those citizens each time they took the floor. Thus it was not the individual member speaking; but the People of our Representative Democracy. And they, the American People, deserved to be heard.

Now, it seems nothing and no one is off limits for horrible personal attacks. Our highly sophisticated and lightning fast network of communication sources, from television, radio, and print publications to Twitter and internet blogs, is used not to build consensus but to divide. Adolescent name calling and false representations have become standard fare. Slams are released unverified because the “info-tainment” outlets are more concerned with impact and rapidity than accuracy. That can wait for the re-write, maybe. Several well-known “news” personalities owe their success to this kind of gutter journalism. The worst thing is how many of us anxiously await the next show, interview or blog-post for a fresh dose of carnage. It is unfortunate that we as a country have colluded in this decline. We shake our collective heads, but we tune in again.

The hyperbolic communications we witness every day in Washington, DC need to be dialed back because they are interfering with the real business of our government, in particular, determining the federal budget.

We are told you can’t expect civility in an election year that the extreme polar constituents are setting the agendas. Maybe that’s correct. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Why should the so-called majorities of each party acquiesce and allow the fringes, with their rabid and toxic language, to speak for them? Non-partisan negotiation and compromise are what we need to find creative solutions to the fiscal mess our nation faces. Instead of criticizing representatives willing to cross party lines as disloyal, perhaps we should applaud them as brave and farsighted.

Sure, if we stay on it the road we are traveling now could lead to destruction. But I don’t believe it’s too late. During an election is the best time for honest debate. Let’s make sure everything gets on the table, question every fact, mull over every argument, and then make our own judgments of what kind of nation we want this to be. You know, if we manage to survive it, this election year could turn out pretty well after all.