Eight years ago, in 2014, I wrote a book about civility, and more specifically how civility was personified in the public life of the late great Tennessee Senator Howard Baker.
Senator Baker was a conservative Republican who believed in what was then the core beliefs of the Republican Party, including a balanced federal budget, limited government, and a strong national defense. But he also strongly believed in something else that was at the heart of his civility. “My father taught me,” the Senator recalled, “to always remember that the other fellow may be right.”
Senator Baker lived his life in contentious arenas including trial courts, political campaigns, the United States Senate, and the White House as President Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff. But in all of those venues, he tried to understand the point of view of even his adversaries, and to find common ground and solutions if possible. Civility, collegiality and teamwork were his shared values even with his political opponents. He became known as “The Great Conciliator”.
The prologue of my book was “An Uncivil Nation”, and it reflected how in the second decade of the 21st century, Senator Baker’s civil approach had gone out of political style, as bipartisanship and compromise had become regarded as weakness. Consequently, public governance had become dysfunctional.
But I’m afraid that in the years since I wrote that book, public life in our nation has gone from bad to worse. We have gone from incivility to hatred.
Our political leaders don’t just say the other fellow isn’t right. They say he is evil and should be hated.
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From incivility to hatred
Hateful rhetoric was on full display in the recent midterm election campaigns. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked by a home invader who bludgeoned him with a knife, fracturing his skull, Republican politicians made jokes about it, delighting their partisan crowds at campaign events.
Politicians on both sides of the Congressional aisle portrayed their opponents as enemies of our nation who were determined to destroy our democratic system. Some even suggested that our election process was rigged, and they would never think the other side won the vote. Concession speeches, like compromise, have become a politically endangered species.
The politicians’ hateful rhetoric could actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they convince their supporters that the other side constantly lies and even seeks to rig elections, then public faith in our Democratic system will be destroyed.
The politicians who engage in hate speech are simply reflecting the hatred that has become pervasive in America. We are no longer all in this together. We have become a polarized nation, where far too many of us hate people with points of view different from our own.
So what is the solution to a hateful nation? Is to await the return of Howard Baker type leadership? That may come, but not if we simply wait. We the people must examine our own opinions and feelings and decide if we want a shared public life in our nation and our communities. And if we decide that is what we truly want, we should let our so-called leaders know how we feel. Only if we do this will they respond.
Polls show we Americans claim we strongly dislike negative political campaigns. But those ads are running because politicians know they work. They work because they reflect not what we say, but what we really feel and believe. When politicians believe we truly dislike negative ads and hateful rhetoric campaigns, they will stop producing them and making such hateful speeches.
We need to remember the advice offered by Howard Baker, Sr. and taken to heart by his son. Let’s all remind ourselves that the other person may be right, and seek to find common ground and yes, compromise, when possible.
If we do this, our politicians will respond, and hateful America may change.
E Pluribus Unum.
Bill Haltom is a writer who lives in Memphis and Monteagle.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: America’s current political climate reeks of hatred, selfishness