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Civility in a Fractured Society

Today's rancorous politics is dividing America

Politics has high and low moments. Sometimes it brings out the better angels of our nature; sometimes baser instincts.

This season of shouting and name-calling is one of our lower moments, but it is not the worst period in American history. In 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, our greatest secretary of the Treasury, in a legal act of incivility — a duel. Five decades later, Congressman Preston Brooks caned Sen. Charles Sumner unconscious on the Senate floor in an argument over slavery.

The Burr-Hamilton duel followed the most inspiring nation-building debate in world history. The Brooks-Sumner caning preceded the most uplifting presidency in our country's existence.

Higher moments have been characterized by expansions of political tolerance; lower moments by debilitating political discourse, often accentuated by the casting of religious slurs. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was described as anti-Christian by partisan critics. At the zenith of anti-Catholic sentiment in the 19th century, rumors were circulated that Abraham Lincoln was Catholic. In the 20th century, in an era of rampant anti-Semitism, it was suggested that Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew.

Today, President Obama, like George W. Bush, has been referred to as a fascist. And in a period of rising Islamophobia, our president is even described as a secret Muslim.

What is wrong with false accusations and preposterous hyperbole? Plenty.

Some frameworks of thought describe rival ideas; other frameworks define enemies or, worse yet, infidels.

Today's rancorous politics is becoming radicalized in manipulative ways that divide Americans. That is why, in this election season, fidelity to civility may be as important as any stand a candidate may take.

Civility is not simply about manners. It doesn't mean that spirited advocacy is to be avoided. What it does require is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on one another.

Seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual or political party. Public decision-making does not lend itself to certitude. Everybody can learn from somebody else. That is why civility is a central ingredient of a democratic society.

Citizens should be expected to disagree vigorously with each other and take their disagreements to the ballot box. But the outcome that matters most after divisive campaigns is whether the prevailing candidates have the commitment to work together for the common good. A government of, by and for the people is obligated to conduct the nation's business in a manner that respects dissent.

We cannot lead the world unless we morally rearm, not with intolerance for others, but with faith in traditional American ideals — honor, dignity, love of or at least respect for neighbors, near and far. As Lincoln noted in words borrowed from Scripture, a house divided cannot stand.

Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was a Republican member of Congress for 30 years.

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