For more on civil discourse, see Adler’s take on presidential power and the challenges of an informed electorate.

1. Stop Political Labeling. The practice of endorsing or dismissing an idea merely because it is characterized as liberal or conservative is the lazy citizen’s way of avoiding the hard work of citizenship, which requires analysis of the relative merits of an idea or proposal. In fact, the practice of labeling is simplistic and circular, and little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. It ignores, for example, the fact of changing definitions and shifting criteria that mark the fluidity of democratic politics. Widespread labeling, moreover, gives a pass to elected officials who know that they can woo and win an audience that is vulnerable to descriptions and judgments grounded in ideological characterizations.

Bush and Obama in Nazi garb

Stop the false labeling.
Credit: Mario Piperni

2. Listen. Nobody has a monopoly on political wisdom. A refusal to listen to competing arguments, an exercise in arrogance, rests on the assumption that we have nothing to learn from our fellow citizens. The tenets of our constitutional democracy reject the concept of human infallibility and reflect the understanding that public policy can be improved through the process of discussion. Listening to an opposing position or dissenting opinion may lead us to reconsider the merits of our own position and, perhaps, affirm the strength of our convictions. Alternatively, it may also persuade us to recognize the deficiencies in our position and improve upon it, or embrace a different view. Everyone gains when we participate in this educational process. In the end, there are compelling reasons to appreciate dissenting opinions as contributions to public dialogue. Dissent has played a major role in American history, and the founders carved out protection for freedom of speech in the First Amendment, precisely because they valued dissent as a means of improving government policies and programs.

3. Citizens Must Be Fair To One Another. Constructive dialogue requires fair and accurate representations of opposing arguments, particularly in a system that rests on the principle of government based on the consent of the governed. “In a republic of truth,” wrote the learned scholar, Francis Wormuth, ”persuasion is the ultimate authority.” That requires respect for facts and evidence and rejection of distortion, demagoguery and snake oil. Nothing of substance is achieved through the creation of straw-man arguments. Fooling people into adopting one’s political position is a hollow victory; indeed, such fraudulent tactics contradict the premise of winning “consent” from one’s fellow citizens, since people who are deceived are hardly “consenting” to something.

4. Avoid the Politics of Destruction. Politics is not war, and words are not bullets. It is wise to remember, after all, that in a democracy, which is fluid and reflective of changing views and values, and grounded in compromise, that today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s ally. It has been justly observed that we can, and should be tough on issues, but tender toward people. Thus, it is important to avoid coercion, threats and intimidation. The effort to destroy opponents, moreover, is likely to curb participation in politics, which further exacerbates apathy and cynicism. In a democracy, it should be recalled, we seek social conditions that encourage participation and honest give-and-take in the discussion of policies, programs and laws.

5. Avoid Ideological Rigidity. Compromise is the engine of democracy, a proven means of achieving consensus, which is critical to the establishment of political legitimacy and stability. Compromise is particularly important in a nation like the United States, which boasts many different views and values, derived from various religious faiths, political orientations and cultural patterns. Efforts to achieve ideological purity are fruitless; it is far better to gain something than nothing. Driving off the cliff, partisan flags flying, reflects the politics of impotence, for it shrinks political participation and squanders appeal and potential. The wages of rigidity may be measured in President Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to negotiate with members of the U.S. Senate on his proposal for America’s entry into the League of Nations. As observers noted, he “strangled his own baby.”

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Lima

    Mr. Adler, why can’t more people like you be president? Why?