Amid tough GOP convention rhetoric, a plea for civility

From chants of 'Lock her up' to Ben Carson's reference to Lucifer, the RNC so far is more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump. Across the spectrum, voices are calling for change. 

Mike Segar/Reuters
Former Republican US presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson went so far as to invoke Lucifer in reference to Hillary Clinton in his speech to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. The comment struck some delegates as going too far, even in the over-heated climate of the 2016 presidential race.

“Lock her up! Lock her up!”

That has become the rallying cry for the party faithful at the 2016 Republican National Convention: Hillary Clinton must be tried, convicted, and put away – if not literally, then figuratively.

It was the theme of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s barn-burner of a convention speech Tuesday night, in which the former federal prosecutor went through the "charges" – from her handling of Syria, Iran, and Russia to her use of a private email server.

After each, he asked: “Guilty or not guilty?” The response: “Guilty!” And then “Lock her up!”

Later in the evening, retired physician Ben Carson even went so far as to invoke Lucifer in his own indictment of Mrs. Clinton.

The tone of this presidential election is like no other in modern times, with the two major-party nominees suffering from historically high negative ratings in opinion polls and partisans on both sides ready to demonize the opposition – at times, literally – in the name of electing one’s chosen candidate.

In Cleveland, the rhetoric has struck observers as more anti-Clinton than pro-Donald Trump. And in Philadelphia next week, when the Democrats meet to nominate Clinton for president, there will certainly be plenty of anti-Trump red meat on the menu.

But as the nation appears to sink ever-deeper into partisan polarization, a quiet effort is building to pull the nation back from the rhetorical brink and promote civility.

Across town from the Republican convention, a group called Purple America has been hosting discussions all week aimed at getting Americans to reconnect as people, get out of their partisan silos, and rise above differences of opinion and identity to recognize the common values that still bind the nation.

At a session Tuesday called “Is civility dead?” the founder of Purple America, Stuart Muszynski, took the plagiarism scandal around Melania Trump’s speech Monday night touting hard work and the need to treat people with dignity and respect, and spun it into a positive.

“Isn’t it great that Melania Trump and Michelle Obama share the same values?” said Mr. Muszynski in his keynote remarks. “I mean, as opposed to talking about plagiarism, the reason why she lifted those values is because they share those values.”

Thus was launched a rousing discussion on the state of civility in America – not dead, the panelists agreed, but in dire need of repair.

Can civility win?

It's not just transpartisan groups like Purple America that are concerned with the current tone. On the convention floor the night before, some delegates felt that the rhetoric went too far – a sign that maybe, even in the over-heated climate of the 2016 race, there are still boundaries to acceptable public discourse.

Some took issue with Dr. Carson's invoking of Lucifer.

“So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that,” Carson had said – connecting Clinton to the subject of her college thesis, Saul Alinsky, who had quoted from Lucifer in his book “Rules for Radicals.”

Others on the right took issue with the "Lock her up" theme. “I don’t think chanting, ‘Lock her up, lock her up!’ is an example of the kind of civil, constructive dialogue that we need,” said conservative talk radio host Michael Medved at the Purple America event.

But Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, saw the chant differently.

“It’s political speak,” he said, comparing “Lock her up!” to a battle cry to rally the troops before going into battle, like the Vikings versus the English.

“I’m down with that on the convention floor,” Mr. Steele said, “but then it gets pushed into the streets and becomes part of the narrative that defines policy.”

Such a battle cry can also be seen as an expression of pure frustration. The last two Republican nominees for president, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were both known for their civility during their campaigns against Barack Obama – and both lost. It’s time to get tough, some Republicans have argued.

But the correlation between civility and losing may be a false one. Panelists invoked the example of the late Democratic House speaker Tip O’Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan – able to sit down, share a drink, and get things done, despite their partisan differences – more than once.

Shared values – and fears

The causes of growing partisanship have been well-rehearsed, and came up in the panel:

Gerrymandering: The gerrymandering of congressional districts has produced a Congress in which most members represent “safe” districts, which means they have little incentive to find common ground with the other party.

Decline of parties: The political parties, which used to police the bad behavior of politicians, have lost power as campaign finance rules have allowed outside forces to dominate. “The parties have been diluted in power versus 20 years ago,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “I have a stake in the reputation of the party, and at some point if someone’s doing something nuts, I’ll say cool it. Now, we have super PACs and dark money without the same set of concerns.”

Partisan talking heads: The growth of cable news has encouraged the loudest and most sharply partisan voices. “I’ve kind of been black-balled recently, because I’m not extreme enough,” said Mr. Medved. “We need reasonable, measured, nuanced opinion.… They want someone who’s more of an angry idiot.”

Sensationalist media: The rise of social media has produced a culture of instant, unfiltered reaction that goes straight to the public. That has fed into the larger media free-for-all, competing for ratings and sensation and producing a climate that was ripe for exploitation. Trump is “a master of the current environment,” said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004, and now a political independent. “It’s the reason he’s a successful reality TV star; that’s why he’s the Republican nominee.”

Public surveys aren’t encouraging. Recently, the Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats see the other party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

And yet, Muszynski notes, Pew and other surveys have also found that Americans are overwhelmingly united on values. “When you mention core values, right or left, Americans believe in freedom, responsibility, hard work, opportunity, giving back, community, and so on,” he said.

Thus, the discussions under the purple tent in Cleveland are an attempt to bring red and blue, Republican and Democrat, together to find that in fact they have much in common. Whether it’s the Naked Cowgirl in Times Square in New York or the evangelical person standing outside a church in Little Rock, Ark., the values aren’t all that different, Muszynski says.

Other groups, such as Living Room Conversations and the Bridge Alliance, are also promoting civil dialogue between individuals from diverse political and religious perspectives.

Solutions – beyond dialogue

So what are the solutions, beyond simple dialogue? Another panel member, communications strategist Richard Greene, proposed having “citizen lobbyists” get involved in the legislative process on issues they care about. Celebrities could help promote awareness of the issues.

Mr. Dowd predicted a growth of independent politics. “Watch what happens after the election,” he says. “More independents will run for office.”

Mr. Greene suggested public financing of campaigns, but Dowd disagreed. “Money matters less today than ever,” he said. “The barriers of 20, 15 years ago are lower than before. Look at the money spent in the primaries. There is no longer an equation between money spent and success.”

Mr. Pepper urged a focus on individual responsibility. “People who are running look to be public servants,” he says. And when they behave in a way that shows integrity, “even in the other party, let’s throw them praise. Let’s make them feel good about being leaders.”

In short, panelists concluded, the current situation isn’t hopeless – despite the tension and negativity of the 2016 race.

“I am as optimistic as I’ve ever been about change coming,” said Dowd. “This year is an accelerator.”

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