Civility in Politics

The opinion piece below by Norman Sherman is a vital message for our troubled times.


Our political system functions best when a campaign is run with civility and respect for the other major party. Devils and goblins are for Halloween, not leading up to election day.

This year, we don’t expect to hear Donald Trump imitating Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” We don’t expect Joe Biden to sound like Mother Teresa.

But we can hope, as we approach November 3, that they and their surrogates choose edification rather than vilification. Our demand should be “Tell us where you stand, not where you lie.”

I think Joe Biden would stand and understand. His candidacy has not canceled his civility, his decency, or our hopes for a competitive, but not a rancorous, finger-pointing campaign.

Civility is not impossible in our two-party system. Political opposition is not perfidy, but normal.  All Democrats are no more Socialists, as Trump continually implies than all Conservatives are Fascists. We differ but within our democratic ways. That is our history. Dissent is and has always been part of our national fabric.

Donald Trump sees anarchists, evil incarnate, in every shadow, carrying every Biden sign. Yet, in the mid 19th century, prominent and loyal Americans proclaimed themselves anarchists. Henry David Thoreau, essayist, poet, philosopher, and an honored intellectual in our history, called himself an anarchist. The anarchists questioned the government, but they did not attempt to overthrow it. They spoke in the sunlight, not in the shadows.

Respect for our two-party system is also basic and long-standing. In 1940, at the Democratic national convention, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke on behalf of her husband. She did it in less than five minutes, in fewer than 500 words. She never mentioned the Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie, or attacked the Republican party. She referred instead to the “candidate of either great political party.”

But, after 80 years in which candidates of both parties behaved in that tradition, being civil seems to elude Donald Trump. Every Democrat has an adjective for a first name. Nasty Kamela Harris. Sleepy Joe Biden. Brain dead Bernie or The Nutty Professor. Goofy Elizabeth Warren. Weirdo Tom Steyer.

Nancy Pelosi gets three: Nervous, High Crime, Crazy. And Republicans who fall out of favor have no vaccine against incivility: Jeff Sessions, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul qualified.

Our political system depends on mutual trust, even when we passionately differ. Tax policy or concerns about the disparity of wealth may be beyond the agreement, but also not beyond rational discussion.  Healthcare or education, or the environment elicit opposing responses, but usually with an effort at mutual respect.

Throughout our history, in dire times and in calm, we have cherished civility, and particularly expected it from the Oval Office.

People of faith, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, search futilely for any shred of their moral code in a man who has never found a Commandment worth honoring.

When casting a ballot this year, we should all, regardless of party, remember that and vote to make America great again by embracing our basic commitment to decency, civility and honor.  And, historically, two great political parties.

Norman Sherman was a former Press Secretary to Hubert Humphrey