The last time I used the phrase “seeking the common good” in a public presentation, I was called an anti-American socialist. I can’t remember my response, but it was probably just as divisive as the term hurled at me. We Americans have lost the art of civil discourse.
We have become a nation of factions and competing interest groups, and we tend to look with disdain at people who disagree with us. This attitude has become so common that we accept it as normal, but America’s form of government cannot survive under these circumstances. The willingness of opposing parties to come together in search of common ground is the necessary work of a functioning democracy. With it a nation thrives, without it the nation breaks itself into pieces.
The current campaign season is an example of our increasing partisan divisions, and our growing disdain for those on the opposite side of the political divide. Most of the rhetoric and argument around the 2020 election focuses on issues that divide us, issues that don’t have unassailable right or wrong answers. For example, those on my hot burner today include universal health care, a woman’s right to choose, racism, the immediate crisis of climate change, the expanding inequality/opportunity gap, and the education of our children. I have passionately held opinions on each of these issues and I intend to keep speaking out.
But I count among my acquaintances people who have equally passionate views on the other side. During my days of working in government, conversations between people who disagreed on difficult issues were the path toward building a consensus, but this has become a lost art. Today such encounters of opposites too often become heated arguments, so they are avoided, and relationships die.
Respectful Disagreement is a Casualty
Respectful disagreement seemed to decline at a rapid pace after a brief coming together in the aftermath of 9/11 but has now been replaced by mutual distrust and disdain. This sorry state was on full display during the presidential debate on Tuesday night. As Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, said in the aftermath of that ugly affair, “Decency and democracy took a severe blow last night. I do not know how to say to teenage kids in America, ‘Politics is a noble profession’ except to say there is Joe Biden and he is trying to project stability in this stormy sea of ego and lies. We saw a thug last night in the office of the President of the United States. We also saw a clear, compelling and dignified alternative. But Joe Biden is not the one on the ballot at this point, we are.”
Think about that. “We are on the ballot” and the future of American democracy is in our hands. Will it be one of darkness and despair, or of hope and light? We are the answer to that question.
The fate of the issues I am passionate about depends on who is inaugurated on January 20, 2021, which means that my first order of business must be the election rather than issue advocacy. And, if Joe Biden is the next president that fate depends on how I and other advocates respond to his leadership. Do we dig in our heals and demand that he must follow our way or face angry opposition? Or, do we try to find common ground that leads to common good? If we do the former, we will eventually fail. The latter is filled with hope.
The True Gentleman
Pondering this brought to mind an experience from my remote past. In 1961-62, I was a college freshman and an SAE fraternity pledge at Tulane University. One of my pledge requirements was to memorize “The True Gentleman” ditty and be able to recite it while a lit match burned down toward my fingertips. Now, more than 60 years later, I still remember the words:
The True Gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity; who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another; who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own; and who appears well in any company, a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.
We would be closer to solving our national problems if we embraced a gender-neutral version of this ditty as our vision of a leader–– a woman or man with humility, intelligence, compassion, integrity and character––and then used it to guide our decisions at the polls on November 3. The future of our posterity depends on it.