The election of 2012 has called attention to how difficult it is for Americans to talk reasonably with one another about public policy challenges. Our civic dialogue — how we sort through issues and reason with one another — is too often lamentable.
We live in a politically divided country. Congress, which ought to serve as the forum where politicians of diverse views find common ground, is instead riven by ideological disagreements. There’s no real discourse, just the two parties hammering at each other in a mean-spirited, strident tone. Small wonder the public holds Congress in such low esteem.
It seems impossible to change, but it’s not. Ordinary citizens—you and I—have it in our power to put our political dialogue back on track.
The first step is to understand that in a politically and socially diverse country, with two houses of Congress and a president required to pass legislation, compromise isn’t a luxury. It is almost always a necessity. Too few politicians seem to grasp this.
So if we want things to improve, if we don’t like intense partisanship and political game-playing, then we must choose officials with an instinct for collaboration. And we, as their constituents, have to give them room to craft legislation with broad appeal.
The budget, taxes, entitlements, education, immigration — on all these issues there is room for each side to accommodate the other. But to make progress on these matters, it will take political leadership of the highest order: leaders who are fair, open-minded, and committed above all else to bringing people together through discussion, debate and compromise.
Let me be clear: We should expect disagreement in our politics. Vigorous debate has been a constant in American history, and let’s hope it always will be. Controversy and argument are natural parts of a working democracy. Our Founders understood this, as a way for multiple views to be aired and possible solutions weighed. Competition for power lies at the heart of our system, and an intense struggle for votes that is marked by the clash of ideas should be encouraged, not feared.
But healthy debate requires other ingredients, too: Respect for one’s adversary. Tolerance of different beliefs and perspectives. Graciousness. A fundamental respect for facts. The humility to recognize that we might be wrong and the integrity to admit it.
When the next political attack ad appears on your television screen, keep these virtues in mind. Because if we don’t like the tone of our politics, you and I are the only ones who can change it. We must make it clear to office-seekers and to our political friends that we do not like inflammatory name-calling or constant attacks on an opponent’s motivation. Let it be known we are tired of excessive partisanship — that we want a genuine dialogue that searches for common ground and solutions.
Knowing how to disagree without obstructing progress should be a bedrock skill for officeholders. They must know how to state their case cogently, in a manner that is substantive and factual, and does not attack the motivation or patriotism of those with whom they disagree. The more this kind of behavior becomes the norm, the better our political system will work and the stronger our nation will be. Because the reverse is true, too: a politics that consists of debasing, demeaning, or attempting to silence the people with whom we disagree is a warning sign of an ailing democracy.
Plenty of powerful groups and interests in this country try to manipulate public opinion. But special interests don’t have the final say on who gets elected. You, the average citizen, have the one thing every candidate values most highly: a vote.
Use it, and use it wisely. Help America turn away from a coarse, surly politics that dwells on differences and places party loyalty ahead of national progress. Choose leaders of a civil temperament who listen attentively to a wide range of views, who see value in bridging the partisan divide, and who will pragmatically address our nation’s challenges.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.