“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
— Winston Churchill
A few years ago, I ran to represent Santa Clarita in the state Senate. I came incredibly close to unseating one of the most powerful Republicans in the state at the time, Sen. Scott Wilk, losing by just 0.8% of the vote.
Recently, I ran into Sen. Wilk. After running in a hard-fought race against one another in which things got pretty contentious, you would think that things would at least be awkward if not tense. In fact, the several times we’ve run into each other it’s light and we have fun with it. There’s actually a lot we have in common, the core of which is our passion and desire to serve our community.
With Sen. Wilk now terming out, I’m once again running to represent our community in the state Senate. I saw my Republican opponent at an event last month – and again, a situation that could have been filled with conflict was instead a cordial one.
Civility is something we should all expect from electeds, from candidates, from all of us. Can we get back to that?
That’s why now, as we embark on another election season, I am asking all of us as a community to come together and re-establish decorum in our politics.
To be clear, that’s not the same as “let’s agree on all things.”
We never will. And I hope we never do. Disagreement is a cornerstone of any healthy democracy. It’s what separates us from authoritarianism. We can — and should — disagree. I’m an attorney. It’s what we do best.
In fact, the populations around the world that live without disagreement have one thing in common: They live without any semblance of freedom.
Our right to vehemently disagree and to take our disagreements to the public square and the ballot box should be universally celebrated, not disdained. Disagreement itself is the necessary (albeit at times exhausting) ingredient. Without disagreement, we are lost.
Competition and zealous advocacy are also positive things. They produce innovation and new ideas and often bring out our best efforts, so long as they remain ethical. We draw those lines as attorneys — it should be the same in our politics.
But we can disagree while being civil and respectful toward one another. Like walking and chewing gum. It’s not hard.
The way I see it, one of the fundamental reasons for the lack of civility in today’s politics is that we all assume that those who are on the other side of the political spectrum are making arguments in bad faith — that there’s always an ulterior motive, which often devolves into calling one another communists and fascists.
We have to stop assuming that our political opponents are bad-faith actors. That’s not to say that everyone is acting in good faith when engaging in political discourse. That’s certainly not the case. But it is to say that we should return to approaching political conversations by giving one another the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s start our conversations by assuming that our sparring partners and worthy adversaries are sincere. That their worry, or their passion, or their excitement about a given political position is genuine.
Another issue is that we now confront conversations as if they’re always debates with a winner and loser, rather than opportunities to learn and hear a different perspective. We treat every conversation as an opportunity to “win,” rather than the chance to explore a topic with someone new who might have something interesting to say.
There is one important exception to this call for civility that must be made clear: As James Baldwin once brilliantly surmised, “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
We need not, nor should we, respect or show civility toward anyone who calls for discrimination or disparate treatment of any persons based on their protected status — be it race, gender, sexual orientation, military status, religion, or otherwise. Those who call for discrimination should not be given respect in return. On the contrary: We should vociferously call out hate speech for what it is and make clear that it is not welcome in any public square.
Yes, even hate speech is protected by our First Amendment so long as it doesn’t call for violence. But the First Amendment does not require that anyone respect the content of another’s speech. Nor should we when it comes to hate.
Setting aside that important caveat: We must always remind ourselves that we are in this together. That we all want to see the great American experiment continue to succeed. And that while we may disagree on the means by which we achieve that success, we can celebrate our disagreements and our right to disagree as freedom of speech in action, just as the framers intended.
Then we take it to the ballot box, honor the results of our free and fair elections, shake hands and continue our conversations.
With that, we bring integrity back to our political system. I think we all can agree that we miss it.
Kipp Mueller is a Canyon Country resident and candidate for the state’s 21st Senate District, which encompasses the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Victor valleys. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.