June 2018 Issue
by Caleb Talley
More than a century and a half ago, as our country stood on the verge of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln urged his fellow Americans to summon “the better angels of our nature.” He pled for civility, the cultural tenet of respect for those with whom they disagreed, before committing to the dissolution of the Union.
Lincoln’s plea fell on deaf ears, and our country plunged into one of the most bitter and divisive periods of its history. In present day, yet again, pleas for civility seem to fall on deaf ears.
Civility in political discourse is fleeting, if it hasn’t already disappeared entirely. Civility was critical in moving our young country – composed of different states made up of people with divergent opinions – forward. How could a pluralistic democracy move forward through turbulent times without respect for fellow politicians and citizens of differing views?
It can’t. And we’ve seen the absence of civility in the public sphere play out in our day-to-day lives, from the conversations we have online to the conversations we choose not to have with our neighbors.
But we have an opportunity to buck the trend. And there’s no better time to try than now.
The primary elections are over. And save for some runoffs, our party nominees are set and have their eyes on the November general election.
Now, the gloves can come off. After squaring off against candidates with the same political affiliation, office-seekers can unload on an easy partisan foe. Candidates who spent months pretending to be more or less conservative or liberal than they really are can loosen their collars, knowing they can now comfortably retreat to their bases.
Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, for the most part, have been shown the door. Partisan bias has seen to it that we have been wholly sorted out into two, distinct political tribes. It no longer matters what’s right or wrong, what’s fact or fiction, so long as you’re a faithful member of your tribe.
And with everyone sorted out into their own political tribes, the enemy is apparent. The stage is set. The partisan war can begin, and the goal is to win at all costs.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We’re Arkansans. We’re better than that. And if anyone can restore political civility, it’s us. Right?
Perhaps. But as a society, we’ve let political ideology come to define us and determine how we treat others. This may not apply to everyone – you may think you’re immune. But studies suggest it’s incredibly common. Research has shown that partisan bias may have more influence on how Americans behave than race and ethnicity.
Through his research, famed political scientist Shanto Iyengar found it extremely rare for a Republican to marry a Democrat, and vice versa. Likewise, it was even rarer for children to have a different political affiliation than both of their parents.
In one experiment, Iyengar gave participants $10 and asked how much of that money they wanted to give other participants. Results showed that individuals were much more willing to give money to someone who supported the same political party.
The same was the case when participants were asked to award figurative scholarships to students they had never met. Participants were way more likely to award a scholarship to a student of the same political party, regardless of their GPA or qualifications.
Partisanship, he found, has become one of the most powerful forces in American life.
We’ve been encouraged by external forces like biased websites, programs and talk radio to hold increasingly negative opinions of those of an opposing party. Partisanship has fueled negative judgments on people based solely on perceived political identification.
At almost every level, the political has become personal. And far too many see it as a zero-sum game.
If we allow vicious partisanship to become the new normal, it could have devastating consequences on democratic governance. This mentality that has taken ahold of so many Americans is the very reason George Washington, in his farewell address, warned us of a system that relied so heavily on political parties.
No one political party has a monopoly on common sense. No one party has all the right answers. There is no weakness in working together, learning from one another and listening to what the other side has to say.
It’s time we get back to a responsible middle. It’s time we get away from the computer screens and back to the dinner table, opening up meaningful lines of respectful conversation with those with whom we may not always agree.
We all want what’s best for Arkansas, even if we have different ideas about how that’s achieved. It’s time to set a new precedent. As Arkansans, let’s be an example for the rest of the country by summoning our better angels and restoring political civility this election year.