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Gazette opinion: Let's do politics better

Gazette opinion: Let's do politics better

Baucus Simpson laugh

Former U.S. Senators Max Baucus, right, and Alan Simpson attend a Yellowstone Public Radio forum on civility in politics with YPR's Jackie Yamanaka at MSU Billings, December 4, 2017.

Civility /səˈvilədē/ (n) A quaint historical term once used to characterize polite public discourse, before social media and political polarization rendered all that stuff obsolete in the early 21st Century.

Here's a question for us to consider: Is it impossible for us to disagree, even to discuss or debate, without disparaging, bullying, sneering, and downright hating?

You're a Nazi. You're a libtard snowflake.

Can we please, somehow, get beyond that?

As we enter a five-month period during which we will choose a President, a new Congress, and many state and local officials, with enormous consequences for our city, state and country, civility is indeed endangered.

If there is no longer a baseline of mutual respect, is democracy doomed? Are we always going to have scorched-earth politics in which there is no compromise, no consensus, no middle way forward?

These are not new questions. The accompanying photograph of Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Max Baucus speaking together at a conference on civility in Billings three years ago is illustrative. Friendship, much less consensus, among senators of different parties is rarer and rarer these days.

Even as the insults fly, people all along the political spectrum decry the loss of civility and what it means for the future of the country. Of course, they blame this plague of poisonous polemics on those who live along different sections of said spectrum than they do.

Particularly during such a high-stakes political campaign, it will take the concerted effort of many people to pull us back from the brink.

As we consider candidates for every position on the ballot, we would do well to make one "litmus test" for our support the level of civility with which the candidate has campaigned.

Have they resisted "going oppo" on their candidates with hateful attack ads, instead focusing on the positive things they hope to achieve? Have they belittled their opponents rather than providing positive reasons why they are the best choice?

If voters consistently demanded a baseline of civility as a prerequisite for their support, the name-calling and nastiness would disappear like the spring snow.

To demand such a standard of political behavior is an individual decision. But until enough individuals make that decision, we will remain in a morass of fear, ugliness and paranoia about "others" who aren't like us.

Montana is a place where politeness in many parts of life seems to come naturally. There's no reason we should allow uncharacteristic viciousness in politics overshadow all that's good about our culture.

We are neither overwhelmingly Republican or overwhelmingly Democrat. The results of the last several elections indicate that we are a purple state.

There are of course many was to divide us. Urban vs. rural. Liberal vs. conservative. Native vs. white. Young vs. old. Religious vs. non-religious, gay vs. straight, affluent vs. poor, you name it. Dividing is easy, and not very useful.

No matter where we fall along any of those fault lines, respecting different views is at the heart of who we are as Montanans and Americans.

It won't be easy, but for the next few months, let's try to hold that thought.


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