John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were famously opposed to each other in their political views. Adams found Jefferson’s radicalism dangerous; Jefferson believed Adams’ federalism tended toward tyranny. But despite their differences, the second and third presidents maintained a rich friendship and correspondence, one that has been treasured by American historians for centuries.
Jefferson and Adams modeled a civility in public discourse that is difficult to find in 2016. Consider the recent presidential campaigns. Donald Trump’s rhetoric has often been harsh at best, and hateful at worst. He has taken to calling his opponent names on Twitter and recently got laughs at a presidential debate by telling her that, were he president, she would have been in jail. On the other side, Hillary Clinton caused controversy for calling half of Mr. Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables,” later walking back the statement but not apologizing for the sentiment.
The presidential debate epitomizes a sinking of public discourse that has been going on for years. Much conversation between Left and Right today seems to be a contest in trying to portray an opponent as craven and anti-American as possible. People with sincerely held beliefs are casually dismissed as “bigots,” while immigrants and others are often talked about in dehumanizing language. David Brooks has accurately described our current political landscape as an “arena culture,” one that more often resembles tribal competitions or sports contests than an exchange of ideas.
The loss of mutual respect in American culture is a negative development, not just for some Americans but for all. The suspicion and bad faith that we hear on so much of our political media may be good for confirming our biases, but it is bad for the actual work of governing with others. Rather than see our political opponents as problems, we should see them as fellow Americans, worthy of respect and worth listening to. This can be hard in a time in which we are often coached to see people who disagree with us as threats to the country. But our conviction in human dignity should run deeper than our party allegiance.
This election year has frequently featured some of the worst parts of the American experience. But it needn’t be so. We should and we can recover a sense of civility in our politics. But as always, the task doesn’t begin with others, but with ourselves.