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What can you do to restore decency in American politics?

The last three presidential transitions all had poignant moments of decency. It's time to build anew this foundation of decency, which has kept America united.

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    President George W. Bush walks with President-elect Barack Obama as he arrives for a visit at the White House in Washington, Nov.10, 2008.
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To understand what decency is and why it is in danger, one need look no further back than 1992, 2000, and 2008. The last three transitions between administrations all had moments of genuine decency.

1992

When President George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, he was heartbroken. A veteran high-level government official, former head of the CIA and former vice president, he had just lost an election to a virtually unknown governor from Arkansas. 

“You will be our President when you read this note,” wrote President George H.W. Bush in a handwritten note that he left on the desk in the Oval Office. He concluded: “Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

2000

When Vice President Al Gore lost the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000, it was an extremely close, bitterly fought contest. Many Democrats felt the election had been stolen because the decisive Florida vote was manipulated to the Republicans’ advantage.

“Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism,” Gore said in his eloquent concession speech. Turning directly to his adversary, he said: “I’m with you, Mr. President, and God Bless You!” In case he had not made himself clear, Gore then turned to the audience and asked them to join him and “stand behind our new president.”

2008

After President Bush witnessed the results on election day, he did not even wait until Inauguration Day to honor his successor. Before the week was over, he invited Barack and Michelle Obama to the White House. Laura kissed Michelle; Barack and George hugged. Then they disappeared for a private hour-long chat that was cordial and respectful.

This is decency — and it is what has kept the United States of America united.  

2016

Although this fundamental bedrock of democracy has been eroding for awhile, it splintered into pieces in this election year. Decency is now officially an endangered form of discourse. In only the last few months, candidates of the highest office in the land have:  

  • Called their adversary  “a liar – pure and simple.” 
  • Told the American people that the other candidate is “dangerous.”
  • Stated categorically that one’s adversary – and the sitting president – is a “founder” of a terrorist organizations
  • Insulted demographic groups including Hispanics, Muslims, and the physically challenged.
  • Flirted with threats of violence against one’s opponent.

The rules of decency, at least for this election cycle, have changed. Just as New Orleans was overwhelmed by Katrina, the foundation of decency has been swept away by this recent hurricane of hyper-partisanship. Unless it is repaired, it will be completely destroyed.  

The future

Regardless of the outcome on November, this is the question to which American must turn: How can this foundation of decency be built anew? It cannot be rebuilt with nostalgia and a longing for the days when a group of “good ol’ boys” ran things from the country club or the backroom at the state house. It has to be built anew in a way that embraces all the tools and methods of the field of dialogue and deliberation (NCDD.org), negotiation (Harvard Negotiation Project) and practical civic engagement in the nitty-gritty of governance (Participatory Budgeting Project).

Given the outcry about the indecency of our times, America needs a team of many champions who are both Democrats and Republicans.

Just as America was represented at the Olympics in Rio by a powerful and diverse set of athletes, American politics needs to be represented by a diverse, highly-skilled group that will defend our traditions of decency.  Many of my colleagues are building that team of the future. Some are doing so with legislators (see NICD’s Next Generation project). Others are doing so with a wide range of state and local public officials, such as the Rodel Fellowship at the Aspen Institute. Still others are looking further ahead and building this leadership among millennials (Such as Action for America, Run for America or Millennial Action Project).

Despite all these citizen-based efforts to restore decency, it still matters enormously whether Trump or Clinton will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the next four years. I certainly know which candidate I strongly prefer. But regardless of which family makes the White House their home for the next four years, decency needs a champion who is not a Democrat or a Republican. In fact, it needs every one of us to ask ourselves: What can I do to restore decency in American politics today?

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America; How We Can Cross the Partisan Divide." He writes his Beyond Red & Blue blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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