Democracy loses when respect disappears

Lori Poloni-Staudinger

By Lori Poloni-Staudinger, associate professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University

After the rancor of the 2012 election season, it is hard to see a path forward as a nation based on mutual respect, reason and civility. Yet that is precisely what is needed if we hope to address the pressing issues of our time and continue to form a more perfect union.

Lately, we as a nation have been failing in this charge.

The biting tone in American political discussion—from the diatribes of “friends” on social media to the inescapable negativity of the candidates themselves—has led many Americans to bemoan the uncivil nature of our politics.

We should indeed engage in debate with one another and hold our elected officials accountable. But doing so with tolerance and understanding is key. Along with moderating our rhetoric, we also must understand the facts and how our system works in order to have a healthy and thriving democracy.

It is tempting to view politics as an unforgiving horse race. As a political scientist, I too get caught up in the candidates’ slipups and barbs. But when politics become overly rancorous—when we lose our ability to engage with those having views different from our own, focusing only on those news sources or viewpoints that confirm our own world view—democracy loses. So do we.

Regardless of how you voted in these elections, we all have a responsibility to change the tone of politics. We can practice reasoned, informed and civil discourse with one another. Opportunities abound. From our kitchen tables, to our Facebook pages, to public forums, we can exercise our democratic and civic responsibility to become engaged in our political system while elevating the tone of our conversation.

This means we also have a responsibility to listen to people with views different from our own and to approach their ideas on their own merits.

NAU is helping to reestablish the reasoned deliberation that is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. In the coming months, we will begin hosting a series of nonpartisan national issue forums that will bring together those with varying perspectives. It is important and natural that we will disagree. Equally important is that we relearn how to have a civil discussion about our disagreements.

College students, and young people in general, should be particularly involved. Many young people say they are turned off from politics largely because of the uncivil tone of political campaigns. But we have the power to change that by demanding something different and leading by example.

With such big issues facing our country—debt, jobs, immigration, education and foreign policy—it is best to productively deliberate our options.

If we approach these issues in a civil way and truly listen to those with whom we may disagree, then the health of our democracy will be strengthened and our publics more informed. We will be on the right path toward a stronger and more vibrant nation.