Civil Discourse

In Stories by Tom McManus

The holiday season is a time for good will and fellowship, as we give thanks for our good fortune while remembering and providing for those around us whose lives or situations are more difficult. Soon, however, the stark reality of this new year – an election of a new president, 34 Senators, all 435 members of the House, and 12 governors — is fast approaching, impressing on us the need to debate and decide key issues and policies, leadership and legislators.

While the electoral process in the United States has at times been a rancorous struggle, recent changes in the form and method of communication appear to be stimulating animosity and incivility among the commentariat. Much broader now than just professional news media types, this group includes a wide variety of partisan “strategists” and other talking heads, plus the blogosphere, social media groups and on-line forums.

Whenever one encounters an op-ed or controversial news article on-line, reading the comments posted there can be an enlightening or exasperating experience … sometimes, both. Quite frequently, there are responses by readers who display a deeper understanding of the key issues than the original author. But often, it seems, commenters hiding behind pseudonyms are quick to hurl insults or foul language-laden tirades at others who simply espouse an alternate or opposing view.

One wonders whether this phenomenon is similar in a way to “road rage” incidents, where some drivers (perhaps because they feel more anonymous in the relative safety of their automobiles) behave in a manner they would never do when interacting with a stranger face-to-face on the street or another public place. Getting along with neighbors and other fellow travelers is a matter of simple courtesy and respect for a diversity of opinions, backgrounds and experiences.

Much of the rhetoric from or in support of a number of political candidates seems to involve stoking fears and distrust of immigrants, or reeling off a litany of complaints about domestic economic performance and foreign policy. Our country is either “on the precipice,” or “going to hell” according to two highly recognizable candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Of course, the recovery from the Great Recession is not complete and could be stronger, but economic conditions have vastly improved as compared to eight years ago. The strength of our economy — at all levels (national, regional and local) — provides the resources for us to accomplish our goals and priorities. What appears to be missing is a pragmatic approach to working cooperatively to formulate solutions to achieve those goals.

We should remember that the breadth and immediacy of today’s communication venues also provide tools to support good ideas with facts or debunk false or misleading claims. So, as Election 2016 transitions from town hall meetings and debates to the season of caucuses and primaries, we will be checking facts and seeking truth. Because, after all, conceding a few basic facts is often the best way to begin a substantive discussion.

The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee supplies this column.