Discord in politics is nothing new. Ancient Roman and Greek politics, for example, involved mudslinging, proliferation of propaganda, and altercations between passionate constituents. British Parliament sessions are also undeniably raucous affairs. Disagreement, at least in part, is a necessary part of democracy. In short, we should disagree.
Democratic societies are comprised of people from different backgrounds with different experiences, priorities and values – all with equal rights. In order to maintain its vitality, a democracy must encourage and facilitate its citizens’ civil discourse. Our democracy’s ultimate fate is defined by how we disagree.
Over the past two years, political disagreement in East Greenwich abounds. Like many town residents, I have followed the news emanating from Town Hall. We have then seen policy debates devolve into personal attacks, spiteful social-media wars, and “gotcha” histrionics.
Humanity tends to view things with recency bias. Oftentimes, we declare our most recent experience as the best, or worst, ever. Bearing this in mind, we can be spared the hyperbole of declaring the current political rhetoric as East Greenwich’s all-time worst. But it seems pretty close.
On simultaneous display has been the uber-malicious nature of national politics. The apparent reality that national political firestorms have permeated our local politics disheartens on several levels.
We 13,000-plus town residents are truly neighbors. We bump into each other in the morning, for coffee or at the schools. Our children play together. We see each other across the sports fields, on Main Street, in our restaurants and shops, and on the waterfront.
We may see a headline about some outlandish conduct of a congressperson from across the country. We may likewise be inclined to share our disdain for such conduct on social media. But, hateful vitriol directed towards someone who we see at soccer practice strikes a much different tone.
The flames of that hatefulness immolate our mutual respect, and breed resentment. And, we are all the worse for it. Hate and resentment stymie our necessary conversations regarding our self-governance.
- Civil Discourse
Senseless name-calling occupies valuable time. That valuable time can, and should, be instead occupied by the debate of our important town issues. Given the importance of such issues and the relatively high intellect of our residents, that debate should be impassioned.
Many view their political beliefs as cutting to the core of who they are. We accordingly need to respect, and encourage, the passion that accompanies political debate and participation. But, we ought to resist any urge for verbal bomb-throwing – which is by no means a substitute for the exchange of reasoned thought.
Reasoned exchanges demand that we hear each other’s viewpoints for their content. We need to abandon any impulsion to determine whether we should agree with someone based on their identity or party affiliation. Great ideas can, and certainly do, spring from all strata of the political spectrum.
- Rational Thought
Hate-filled exchanges give way to irrationality. Irrationality leaves us subject to the Chicken Little “sky is falling” mentality. That mentality frequently causes us humans to jump from one extreme to another.
We may leap before we look, much like an employee who so dislikes a job that s/he jumps to another, with the mindset that “nothing can be worse than my old job.” The grass is not always greener – a reality that we do not always realize until it is too late.
Some national politicians quite literally make a living on keeping constituents in this panicked state, hyping hatefulness. The invariable losers amid such hyped-up hate is the citizenry itself – as its true needs go unaddressed.
Effective politicians who truly serve their constituents – the John McCains, by way of example – are those who maintain civility, regardless of opinion differences. Let us be unpanicked and rational, yet determined. Let us have a reasoned “plan” – and not just irrationally jump to the other, or next, “extreme.”
- Public Image
Incendiary infighting damages our town’s public image. And, a poor public image disinclines prospective residents and businesses alike from living, or investing, in our town.
Residents like security. Businesses/investors like stability. Our prosperity, as well as our real-property values, demand both security and stability.
We owe it to ourselves to uplift each other, and as a result our entire community. As this embarrassingly-huge Bruce Springsteen fan has heard at the end of most of his concerts: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Our collective public image can indeed be a winning one, to everybody’s benefit.
- Our Children
Civility in political discourse, if for no other reason, sets a consummate example for our children. Many of us parents, in our devoted efforts to effect positive differences in our children’s lives, do well to model two crucial realities for them: (1) we must stand up for our beliefs; and (2) we must respect that others may have different beliefs.
Most of us know that children absorb a lot! Research shows that, most of all, children absorb what we adults model. What we most assuredly do not want to model is political “bullying” – especially as we instruct our children to refrain from bullying in school or among peers.
Upon declaring my candidacy for Town Council, I pledged that I would speak to as many fellow residents as possible – and, if elected, act for the collective will on all issues. Perhaps most importantly, I promised that I would campaign and serve with the utmost level of respect for my fellow residents and constituents, especially those who may hold disparate viewpoints. Throughout my campaign, the constituents’ call has been clarion: Restore civility!
It is often said that you can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. I earnestly elect to be part of the solution. Civil, albeit impassioned, discourse is also undoubtedly part of the solution. My genuine hope is that the entire electorate, irrespective of political leanings, elects to join with me. Together, our civility will eliminate hatefulness and its detrimental effects. We will use our valuable time engaged in fervent, rational and respectful debate of important town issues, such as taxes, municipal services and public schools.
Municipal government is politics is its purest sense. As my fellow Boston College alumnus and United States House Speaker Tip O’Neill observed, “All politics is local.” If there was ever a “laboratory” in which effective representative government can be practiced, it is here – in the best municipality in the smallest, yet first sovereign, state in our nation!
East Greenwich is a paragon of excellence. We have preeminent public schools. We possess stunning natural beauty and resources. We likewise enjoy an extremely unique mix of wonderful residential neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown area, a university, and large areas available for business occupation and commercial development. Most essentially, our town is comprised of many intelligent and involved residents.
Why can we not also be the leader in civil discourse? Let us be the example other towns look to for inspiration in handling municipal matters. Let us not be the town that begets chuckles on the evening news. Let us be the community that elects their officials on their merits and content of their character, not a community that elects those best at stoking the flames of the angry mob. Let us be able to hold our heads high on November 7th! Future generations’ prosperity will be paved by our well-modeled democracy. Simply put, let us be better than the rest – not like the rest.
East Greenwich did not become the beautiful community that we all love by accident. It took years of our best and brightest working hard and civilly, together, to create this wonderful place. It will take all of us, together, to keep it that way.
Sean T. O’Leary, Esq.
Independent Candidate for East Greenwich Town Council