When we politicize everything, we only widen our nation's divide
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No American occupies a larger podium than the president of the United States, and the views of our top leader reverberate across the country. From that unique position, the president sets the tone for every political and cultural debate. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE, as much as any president before him, recognizes the power his words carry with the American public. That is precisely why his statements about “both sides” in the wake of violence in Charlottesville present such a grievous degradation to our political discourse.

Americans across the country and people around the world expected President Trump to condemn the violence, actions and hate speech of the white supremacist organizations rallying in Charlottesville earlier this month. For the past half-century, public officials across the country have categorically rejected the types of division and bigotry that those white supremacists spew, a recognition of the human rights of all Americans as well as the need to stand up for equality for our democracy to thrive.

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Instead, what we received following the incidents in Charlottesville were remarks from President Trump that blamed both white supremacists and counter-protesters demonstrating in support of the fundamental American value of tolerance. Civility is not possible unless everyone first respects the equal rights of all Americans and condemns hate speech.

 

While some may argue that a call for civility limits the bounds of free speech, doing so creates a false equivalence between hate speech and a desire for respectful discourse. President Trump’s comments, laying blame at the feet of both groups present in Charlottesville, create an obstacle to civil discourse by ignoring the presence of hate speech.

Democrats and Republicans, politicians and private citizens alike were quick to speak out against Trump’s remarks. As individuals spoke out, it was a reminder that acting with civility does not mean accepting bigotry. Unfortunately, it is clear that we have veered wildly off course when Washington has to reinforce the rejection of white supremacy and re-establish the human rights of all Americans.

But there is hope that the president’s comments — as offensive and unacceptable as they were — can become a catalyst that restores civility in our democracy. Washington must once again become the place where our leaders convene to work together, debate issues and solve problems for the American people. First, we have to acknowledge that we can disagree without being disagreeable. That will take politicians rising above attacks and demonstrating respect for one another.

Following the president’s comments, Brian Krzanich, chief executive officer of Intel announced his resignation from the American Manufacturing Council in a blog post, calling attention to “the serious harm our divided political climate is causing to critical issues.”

Krzanich, an engineer, joined the council to revive the country’s manufacturing base, an economic issue that should draw bipartisan support. He said the council wasn’t supposed to be political and expressed his concern that every decision in Washington is quickly becoming about politics and the need to attack those who disagree.

“My request — my plea — to everyone involved in our political system is this: set scoring political points aside and focus on what is best for the nation as a whole,” Krzanich wrote. “The current environment must change, or else our nation will become a shadow of what it once was and what it still can and should be.”

Being able to listen to and demonstrate respect for those with whom we may disagree is critical to our democracy. Civility, therefore, is especially important for our politicians at the federal, state and municipal levels. Krzanich is right. Our country must return to discourse that is civil, respectful and productive, if we are to confront the complex issues facing our country.

We are fortunate to live in a country where so many leaders have condemned bigotry, even when the president has not. The recent incidents in Charlottesville have shown us that there is unfortunately a great deal of hate and hurting still present in our country. We must respond with unity and respect for every American.

It is time for us to halt the instinct to question the motives of those with whom we disagree and take the time to stop and listen. This is the only way to live up to the values upon which our nation was founded.

Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.