Dark days for public discourse
When my brothers and I were young, my mom, a Democrat, and my dad, a Republican, used to lead freewheeling discussions at our dinner table. The only rule was paying attention when others were talking, and no interrupting. My parents cancelled each other out in most elections, but the back and forth around our table was a conversation, not a contest. They were both good listeners, and they expected the rest of us to be good listeners too. Their message was simple and clear — tough on the issues, and soft on the people.
Sometimes, this sentiment feels like a million years ago. Soft on the people? Time spent on social media will explode that. People who may have a lot in common hurl hatred and invective at one another, knowing they will never have to own up to their rhetoric in a face-to-face engagement.
Following the example set by President Trump, public officials on both sides of the aisle regularly taunt their foes by disparaging their looks, and question the moral authority of anyone who disagrees with them. Their supporters, fired up by the language of their leaders, have adopted an “anything goes” approach to advocacy that extends far beyond traditional forms of civil disobedience, including chasing opponents out of public spaces.
Along the way, the data-gathering tools of the 21st century have made it easier for magazines, newspapers, online information aggregators, TV news shows, and issue advocacy organizations to search for and find their “best” customers, segmenting into more clearly defined profiles what was once a broad market of consumers with a lot of points of view.
Put it all together, and it feeds on itself. One outrage begets another, and what was once merely a contest of ideas and points of view, becomes something much darker. The notion of “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one — gets lost. The people involved in this scrum stop listening to the other side, no longer seek common ground, and, instead, revel in the fight. As the fight escalates, they escalate along with it.
And many people who used to be interested in the issues of the day simply turn away. They focus on their families, their work, their local sports teams, charities, and the like. They find the grinding, negative nature of public discourse discouraging, and simply choose not to participate.
For those of us who have spent a significant amount of our adult life in public service, these trends are disturbing, for three reasons.
First, public life and public service are supposed to be about collaboration and cooperation. Our founding fathers set up our democracy to be messy and complicated and, by design, wanted people who do not always agree to work together to get things done. When leaders choose to burn bridges instead of build them, they sacrifice their ability to do their jobs. And if you believe it is all about the fight, consider this: An overwhelming majority of Americans — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents — believe Washington is broken and have thought so for a long time.
Second, amid the rancor and manipulation of social media, it is critical for public leaders to turn down the invective instead of amping it up. There are forces at work here, by accident and by design, that drive people apart. Those of us who have a voice must run against this current. Moderation — of ideology or temperament — isn’t fashionable among the fully engaged, but it is what the majority of people who are turned off by the constant, full-throated fighting are looking for.
Third, the constant amplification of difference is dangerous. There are too many examples to cite them all — and that, all by itself, should tell us all we need to know about why it has to stop. When public leaders turn public debates into words of war — “enemies” “go to hell” “attack” — they are enabling the edgiest of their followers to take things into their hands, and unfortunately, some of them do.
Politics and public life are not for the faint of heart. It has been and always will be a noisy and cantankerous place. But there is a big difference between open and honest debate on the issues and the sort of character assassination that dominates much of today’s dialogue. It is incumbent on those of us in public life to recognize the larger trends that are pulling people apart, and to use our voices to bring them together. It won’t end the debate to treat one another with respect, but it could nudge some people who have turned their backs on the whole thing to come back.
Most of all, we need to model the behavior that my parents required for a seat at their table when I was young, and demand it from our colleagues in our own public square.
Charlie Baker is the governor of Massachusetts.