There’s something to be said about our current state of affairs when a departing mayor says matter-of-factly that civility is totally gone from politics in the modern era.
That notion was put forth by outgoing mayor Scott Avedisian of Warwick, when asked about the growing divisiveness of our times in politics and in everyday discourse during an interview held within the last couple of weeks of a mayoral tenure that spanned nearly 20 years.
If there is anyone who should be able to understand overcoming division within politics, Avedisian would be the guy. He’s won nine landslide elections as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and has consistently had to work with City Councils who are sometimes (as they are now) without a single non-Democratic member amidst their nine-member group.
Yet the winds of unrest have increased in velocity, and it can be felt from as high up in the political world as Washington D.C. and all the way down to a council chamber in Warwick. There is a palpable sense of unwillingness to engage in constructive dialogue with one another – subverted with an unmistakable desire to prove somebody else wrong, and for one party to be able to stand up, thumb their nose and say “I told you so,” on the other end.
We may not see physical displays of our division like back in the Civil War era, such as when South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks nearly beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate with his cane because the two had a fiery, fundamental disagreement about whether or not slavery was acceptable, but this does not mean we have progressed beyond that inherent desire to forcibly shut someone down who disagrees with us.
The nature of politics is supposed to be an art of compromise underscored by an ability to see multiple sides of an issue and navigate towards a common middle ground where neither side gets exactly what they want, but both sides get a little bit of what they need. It is a practice as old as civilization itself, and has more or less stayed the same while the geopolitical scale of things around us has increased in size and destructibility exponentially throughout the passing decades.
It seems that now, we have arrived at a point where it is simple enough to surround yourself with likeminded peers – either in person or online – to a degree where you do not have to be challenged in your views, and where you can always find someone to stoke your inner desire to be correct.
Look at Facebook, a place where some people log in purely to disagree with the hot topics of the day. Some rants and back-and-forth venom spewing contests between modern day Sumners and Brooks will go on for hundreds of comments, with dozens of random people jumping in and out of the argument like a toxic game of hot potato, only nobody wins and everybody loses and nobody learns anything or concedes an inch on their preconceived ideas of the truth.
If this method of discourse has become the standard practice in modern politics, then we are at a crucial turning point in our state, and in our nation as well. While everyone seems to have no trouble disparaging mayors and governors and state reps, it seems far less common to find people providing constructive criticism about how to improve things.
In this world devoid of political civility, nearly every political campaign becomes a mud-slinging contest about what the opposing candidate does poorly more than what the new candidate can do better. Every issue of disagreement becomes a wedge issue, a line in the sand, rather than an opportunity for compromise and improvement.
As we are seeing nationally, no one party and no one politician has all the answers. The only way for us to head towards a better tomorrow is to be willing to listen and actually consider the opinions that we personally do not agree with. That’s just good politics.