We just experienced another brutal political season in which almost every candidate throughout our country lashed out at his or her opponent in ways that one could not conceive imaginable not many years ago. I’ve been around the political block a time or two — involved in the legislative process, the executive branch and lobbying in Frankfort and Washington for nearly 50 years.
Government today is an extremely complex machine. At times, it is very difficult to deal with, but it’s worth the effort. I have been honored to experience the camaraderie and friendship of those working in every area of government and on both sides of the aisle.
And that is what’s so startling, and disheartening, about the current lack of civility that our state and country are facing.
Initially the voting public seemed to be annoyed and turned off by negative ads, a trend that politicians almost universally failed to detect. Many politicians continue their personal attacks, frequently with total disregard for the truth.
My name is Terry McBrayer and I do not approve of these messages.
It’s true that government is no place for the fainthearted. Kentucky has a long history of intense political fighting — from the duels Henry Clay fought to the assassination of Gov. William Goebel. But, traditionally, the goal of doing what’s right for the good of the people has prevailed, and the state has moved forward.
My sense, however, is that this is changing on a broad scale. And not just in Frankfort, but in other state capitols, and in Washington, D.C. Today, each day seems more about smearing and undercutting the opposition than about moving forward legislation that supports our citizens. The common good is no longer the top priority.
How individuals behave toward each other in everyday life is bad and getting worse, and it affects everyone’s quality of life. We must not accept this as inevitable; we can and must reverse it. Civility is not something you can measure, but it is the mortar supporting the bricks of our institutions and traditions. We are confronted everywhere with signs that our culture is becoming decivilized and, unfortunately, we seem to be getting comfortable with it. If we are going to reverse bad behavior, we are going to have to think bigger and more long-term.
Freedoms are secured by shared responsibility, civility and service to one another. Parent to child, brother to sister, neighbor to neighbor. 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 must be a central ingredient of a democratic society.
People accepting responsibility will build our society and encourage civility. We must put others before ourselves. In the end, much of this comes back to government, and to electing and supporting public officials who will not only treat each other civilly, but will also create a framework that encourages pro-social behavior.
We cannot advance the world unless we morally rearm, not with intolerance for others, but with faith in our traditional American ideals: honor, dignity and love — or at least respect for our neighbors, near and far. As Lincoln noted in words borrowed from scripture: A house divided against itself cannot stand.
Your contributions to the civility process can take the form of demanding better behavior from our public representatives. I urge you not to stand by and watch the degeneration continue; instead, assume the mantle of social responsibility and do your part for a responsible society by demanding that our lawmakers do theirs.
I’m really not advocating for politically moderate views so much as for expressing views in a moderate tone of voice. Maybe we can get people excited about calming down, provide a voice for people who don’t scream, and show there’s a reasonable middle ground between apathy and zealotry.
My friends, it all depends on you. Whether or not we have civility in our political campaigns, whether we demand decency and respect from our elected officials and each other, and whether we hold our major political parties to a higher standard. If we do that, we will have started.
W. Terry McBrayer of Lexington is senior partner in the McBrayer Law Firm and former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party.