Those of us who work in politics have obligations to the political system. This system, our constitutional republic, is a bold experiment in governance that demands respect and needs nurturing to survive. Our system succeeds or fails based on how those of us in system behave, and we need to behave better.
Doomsaying about democracy has become a cottage industry. While recent political events have made headlines, the unspoken rules of democratic governance have been fracturing for a while. Our partisan divides are wider than at nearly any point in our history. When a defense of the current state of affairs is pointing out that the Civil War was worse, there’s a problem. In response, organizations are promoting political civility and increased civic engagement. Advocates are trying to limit money in politics and the power of lobbyists in Congress. Others want to change the way legislative districts are drawn and implement other electoral reforms.
Most of us who chose a career in politics did so because we wanted to change the world. Maybe a school trip to D.C., Model United Nations, or Junior State of America inspired us. Maybe we were taught that public service was a noble profession to which the best and brightest aspired. We came to Washington to work for a representative or senator in whom we believed, or to advocate for issues and ideas that mattered.
Along the way, many of us got married and got mortgages. We traded in long hours and low pay in congressional offices for long hours and better pay in the private sector. Some got rich working in industries with a lot of money at stake in federal policy, and others got rich by cheating or advocating for bad guys. But most people who work in politics are mostly doing the best they can most of the time. After all, there are more efficient ways of getting rich or powerful than by answering phones in a congressional office or writing tweets about roads.
It is time to dust off those ideals and recommit to the values that started us in politics in the first place. These ideals are not at odds with winning. Being smart, good, and effective can be difficult but if it were easy we wouldn’t get paid to do it. There are several steps political professionals can take to improve the quality of discourse in our republic.
First, stop attacking politics. More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle noted that man is a political animal. Politics is how we organize ourselves. It is how we ensure that our children are educated, our elderly receive care, and our shores protected. Short of violence, politics is the only way we have of sorting out what needs to be sorted.
Second, stop attacking democratic institutions. Imagine what you would think if you got on a plane and the pilot announced that most pilots were drunken fools, those who worked in the control towers were lazy twits, and that the plane itself was falling apart. Yet, this is what political communication often sounds like. You cannot attack Congress and expect it to work or people to trust you. The courts only succeed if we respect them. We will only get honorable presidents if we treat the presidency with honor.
Third, stop gratuitously attacking the morality or patriotism of candidates and elected officials. Some people in politics deserve condemnation. But if everyone with a “D” or an “R” next to their name is defined as “evil” because of their consonant, we can never collectively judge behavior as wrong. The honest and honorable can disagree with each other about trade and taxes.
Fourth, use political communication as a tool for civic education. Americans are woefully ignorant of civics. Phrases like “a free and open press is a core of our democracy, but that headline misses an important point in the tax debate” reinforce the importance of a free press while making a policy argument. Saying “the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution. What the judges say goes. I hope that another case comes along that allows the court to reconsider, until then I will work for policies that achieve our goals and meet their standards” reminds people of the court’s role while still taking a policy position. We learned that everyone accused of a crime gets a lawyer from TV police dramas. We can learn civics the same way.
Those of us who work in politics know that what we say, or what we help others say, matters. When we attack our politics, our institutions, and those with whom we disagree, we help shape how the public views those politics, institutions, and people. Praising our republic and those who work within it can shape how people view our American experiment as well. If we do not stand up for our republic, no one else will either.
Peter Loge is an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He spent 25 years working in Washington as a consultant, lobbyist, and senior staffer in Congress and the Obama administration.