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No, civility isn’t optional

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In America, when we get angry at our political opponents, we take out negative ads. In too much of the rest of the world, they take out machetes, ricin or worse. It is what has separated us from the other major powers for 200 years.

This is even truer today in the 21st century. Think of what happens to the opposition in China, Russia, Iran or even Saudi Arabia. We are the only major power on earth with this distinction. Yes, there are important countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Japan and India, where democracy reigns but they are not the leading powers or the leading military forces in the world today. Of those, America remains the only one of the world’s superpowers based on personal freedom and constitutional order.

{mosads}It is precisely the orderly transfer of power from the losers to the winners that has separated us from the pack. We have, unfortunately, over the last two years turned our democracy into a “Saturday Night Live” parody of itself. And the cause was not Donald Trump’s election but the failure to digest that election and move on. This error is now being repeated in the aftermath of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, with new threats of impeachments and investigations.

The recent turn to the criminalization of politics and the politicization of all of our institutions has degraded our democracy and, in the long run, only benefits those who want to get rid of democratic institutions altogether. Those in the Kremlin and the politburo of China’s state party are laughing at us. Why would anyone want such a system, they ask?

It’s important to remember that John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 by a rather controversial whisker in Chicago; Nixon licked his wounds and came back in 1968. George Bush won in 2000 by an even slimmer margin in Florida after a bruising battle that went to the Supreme Court. But Nixon and Al Gore put democracy, the need to promote civil harmony, and the protection of our institutions above settling political scores.

That’s not what happened after the unexpected but decisive electoral college win by Trump. Back in the ’30s, President Franklin Roosevelt became frustrated with our checks-and-balances system and tried to pack the Supreme Court. Luckily, saner heads in Congress stopped him. And the Supreme Court, as it evolved without FDR’s destructive packing, went on to end segregation, to create a right to privacy and abortion, and to proclaim same-sex marriage the law of the nation. Had FDR packed the court and discredited it, the court likely could never have made these later reforms.

If you allow it to do so, our politics always evolves. Today’s winners become tomorrow’s losers and the public swings not based on feverish moments but over long periods of time toward freedom and justice for all. It’s what makes this a great country. This may be a time of greater conservatism on the court but, most assuredly, over time the pendulum will swing again — or Congress will be pressed to actually solve problems rather than allowing them to be decided by the courts.

The idea that if you lose an election, you should delegitimize the winner, is dangerous business that, once put in motion, can swing out of control. Similarly, if you lose a Supreme Court nomination fight, impugning the court as a whole is no less dangerous.

No party has had clean hands in the last 25 years. Republicans went after Bill Clinton hard, even eventually impeaching him; I vigorously opposed those moves then and pointed fingers at the Republicans for playing a dangerously divisive game that ultimately boomeranged on them.

Today, Hillary Clinton declares that Democrats do not have to be civil until the party wins back a branch of government. Implied in her statement is that the Democrats don’t have to be fair, truthful, or condemn the outrageous actions of fringe groups like Antifa. They do — and her comments have so far only been a gift to Republicans.

I think campaigns should be hard-fought. They should have ideas, and point out the legitimate flaws of opponents. But our democracy must be the envy of the world, not a laughing stock. We must believe in its outcomes and use the mighty means we are given to influence the future outcomes — great ideas, powerful speeches, ads, social media, and even negative ads.

Yet, if the losers believe they can ignore the guardrails that keep us free, they are wrong. If they do not see supporting the system and waiting for their turn at victory as being their civic duty, then our leaders no longer deserve to lead.

We have a new generation of voters. They didn’t live through World War II and the fight against fascism; they didn’t live through the Cold War and the constant threat of mutual destruction. They only dimly know about the Holocaust and the extermination of 6 million Jews. They have been spun into questioning the values of a country that, with each generation, has only shot higher and better, seeking to create that “more perfect union.”

These leaders all know better than to take cheap shots at our system, and we all deserve better if they don’t. It’s time for all our leaders — of both parties — to take seriously the oaths they swore to support and defend our Constitution, regardless of their differences. Political expediency and driving up base support may seem like a politician’s tonic in the modern age of social media, but it is nothing more than a fool’s errand that benefits no one.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.

Tags Al Gore Bill Clinton Brett Kavanaugh Constitution Democracy Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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