The old saying goes, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” While the originator of this saying may not have been contemplating politicians, or the Donald Trump bird (Yes, there is a bird that now has this distinction), it is my general premise that we collectively encourage or permit certain behaviors to occur. If harsh or vitriolic rhetoric permeates our nation, we the people are ultimately responsible for it, not our elected officials.
Lest anyone not agree with my premise, I want to look further at the tempting idea that we should blame our recent batch of politicians for the current political climate. I think an honest assessment of our situation would lead to the conclusion that the tensions in our nation have been building for many years. And a frank assessment of ourselves would reveal that our politicians are only following the behavior we have been modeling for them.
To see evidence of this, we need look no further than the web. We complain that our elected officials are unwilling to work through political issues like mature adults, and yet news sources report trends of us “unfriending” or blocking people on our social networks because they support the opposing candidate. And it has become difficult to find a major opinion piece online where the comments section has not descended into name calling, sometimes sprinkled with profanity depending on the intensity of the topic.
While our real world interactions within our social circles tend to be more “civil,” it is merely because many people will not engage in substantive political discussions with friends and co-workers for fear that it will ruin relationships. With the exception of religion, there may not be a more taboo subject among regular social acquaintances than politics. Consequently, political discussions are reserved for “safe” social circles where everyone holds the same, homogeneous view. Nevertheless, once people get outside of their regular social circles, they will often give frank expressions of political opinions. But the lack of any social relationship between the participants also allows the discussions to become disrespectful and sometimes hostile. I have experienced this firsthand as a congressional intern answering phone calls for a congressional office.
If we are also tempted to entertain the notion that our politicians and the political system itself has gotten beyond our control, we would find ourselves at odds with the very Father of our Nation. George Washington stated in a letter to Marquis de Lafayette:
“That these Powers (as the appointment of all Rulers will forever arise from, and, at short stated intervals, recur to the free suffrage of the People) are so distributed among the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, into which the general Government is arranged, that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an Oligarchy, an Aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form; so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People. (Source)
Essentially Washington was telling Lafayette that the new Constitution, not yet adopted by the states, would structure the federal government in such a way that so long as any virtue remained with the people who were responsible for electing its representatives, we would never be in danger of falling into despotism.
Many of us are guilty of encouraging the inflammatory rhetoric and behavior we witness in too many of our elected officials. And just as importantly, too many of us are guilty of not engaging in politics at all. Without positive models of political interactions being demonstrated, our more radical examples are left standing as society’s teachers of proper political discourse.
If the bad news is that we are responsible for the development of our current political climate, the good news is that we can begin developing a new political culture. But to change it, or to put out a “don’t feeding the birds” sign, we must better understand what brought us to this point. This is what I want to discuss in the posts ahead.