Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Beyond the adversarial to a “politics of solutions”

Note: This post is a column I wrote for my community newspaper in March 2006 in anticipation of the midterm elections. I had recently read Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics, and I was inspired to try to elevate the level of political discourse – at least locally. I’ve been reminded of Wallis’ good counsel lately by the personal attacks on Hillary Clinton during and since the Philadelphia debate. Her opponents have attempted to justify their assault on Clinton because she’s the frontrunner. Is this the American way - if you pull ahead in a contest, your opponents have permission to rip you to shreds?

Human beings ideally progress from the age of innocence through experience and finally to wisdom. We don’t usually proceed neatly from one stage to the next. Typically we revisit the earlier stages from time to time. And hopefully, as we mature, we most often choose the way of wisdom.

Politics is one area where we easily regress to earlier stages, especially in the heat of a campaign.

I’ve been thinking about these things since Minnesotans launched the midterm elections on a cold wet evening earlier this month. After our precinct caucus adjourned, a neighbor and I were looking ahead.

We talked for a few minutes about the challenge of expressing our political opinions without attacking those who disagree with us.

I failed to mention that I grew up in a household where a political discussion could become an all out brawl. Or that I still enjoy an occasional no-holds-barred debate with one or two of my relatives.

Matter of fact, my early childhood training sometimes spills over into the public arena. In those instances, no problems are solved, and my opponents and I become even further alienated. Those reasons alone are good enough to stay within the bounds of civil discourse.

But I’ve also been inspired by Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Wallis is a genius at finding common ground in the most polarized hot-button situations. “Our political leaders must learn the wisdom that the way to reach common ground is to move to higher ground,” he contends. “And we citizens should start by showing the way.”

Wallis encourages Americans to move beyond the adversarial politics of liberal and conservative to a “politics of solutions.”

His analysis of Washington’s approach to problems also applies to state and local government: “Right now Washington responds to a problem or crisis in two ways. First politicians try to make us afraid of the problem, and second, they look for someone to blame for it. Then they watch to see whose political spin succeeded, either in the next poll or the next election. But they seldom get around to actually solving the problem.”

Wallis says the media would rather “pitch a fight between polarized views instead of convening a public discussion to find serious answers.”

Whatever the forum, these guidelines for civil discourse encourage such discussions.

{Maybe we should give each presidential candidate and the moderators a copy of these simple guidelines ahead of each debate}

· Recognize a person’s right to advocate ideas different from your own.
· Discuss policies, politics, issues and ideas, not people.
· Disagree without being disagreeable.
· Use civil and helpful, not hurtful language.
· Respectfully respond to different points of view.
· When unsure of what another means, ask for clarification.

· Realize people may not understand what you have to say. Be patient and explain yourself again if others misinterpret your meaning.

· Recognize that sometimes people can and must agree to disagree.

· If you are not sure what you are about to say is civil, find another way to say it or let it go.

· Reliance on labels for groups of people {illegal immigrants?} is often the first step toward the negative. Whenever possible, avoid them. They rarely add to the quality of any discussion.

Regardless of the issues, the tools of civil discourse can help us reach common ground. Not only will we be more likely to find real solutions to our problems, but as Jim Wallis suggests, we’ll be out in front, showing our leaders the way.

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