These are remarks made by Cliff Hyra, Libertarian Party candidate in the recent gubernatorial election, on the need for civil discourse in Virginia and the United States at the Big Bacon Fry two weeks ago. I’ll have more to say in future posts about the excellent discussion we had there and initiatives that could arise from it. — JAB.
Politics has changed. Americans have become more extreme in their positions, have much more negative views of people who disagree with them, and are less willing to compromise. About one third of Democrats and Republicans now see the other party not just in an unfavorable light, but as a fundamental threat to the nation’s well-being. Our relationships and methods of communication are changing, with the Internet replacing face-to-face communication and allowing us to choose our own sources of information and our peers.
In turn, the idea of civility in politics seems to have slowly gone by the wayside. Open hostility and demonization are common-place. Violence regularly erupts at political rallies. The differences between Republicans and Democrats, not just in politics but in daily life, are increasing dramatically. If the trend continues, rising political violence seems all too possible. Yet there seem to be no incentives favoring a return to civility. Is there anything we can do to help turn things around?
When I first decided to run for Governor of Virginia, I chose to make respect a central tenet of my campaign. That was not so much a strategic decision for me, as simply something that was very important to me personally. Respect for others — even, and especially, people who I disagree with and think are making the wrong choices — is the basis for my political philosophy and a guiding principal for my personal behavior. And as a third party guy, I don’t have luxury of being able to create bubble of like-minded folks and demonize everyone outside of it, or I would be living in a very small bubble indeed.
For me, recent changes in political discourse have been a huge personal loss. As someone with an interest in policy who cares mostly about results and not partisanship, I find it increasingly difficult to talk to anyone about anything. I sometimes feel accosted on all sides by extremist political rhetoric. In my campaign, I did not view the other candidates as adversaries, but as collaborators in the political process, by which Virginians try to discover and arrive at the best policy solutions for the future. Meanwhile, I can hardly stand to log into Facebook because of the bitterness and contempt being exhibited there.
One of the things that was interesting to me was the stark dichotomy between what I saw online, and what I experienced on the campaign trail, face-to-face with voters. I fully expected strident polemics and harsh criticism, and on the Internet I received it in spades. But person-to-person, interactions were much more civil, much more enjoyable, much more cooperative. Even those who strongly disagreed with me were able to be polite and have a reasoned conversation.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was, not just to talk to supporters, but to journalists and to everyday people on the street. It was a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to see places in Virginia I had never seen before, to meet people with lives different from my own and learn about them and make a connection. Humans are evolved to cooperate with each other in person, where the costs and benefits of our interactions are immediate and unavoidable. In person, people were willing to make concessions and consider new ideas, and many expressed a strong distaste for the tone of modern politics. It makes me wonder how much of the lack of civility is directly attributable to the rise of the Internet as a means of communication. So, I don’t think that people have changed for the worse in some fundamental way, and that gives me hope that things can improve.
And things need to improve, if we are going to avoid further political violence, let alone address some of the challenges we face today that require collaboration, cooperation, and compromise. But politicians and political parties are fundamentally unsuited to change themselves. Politicians and political parties will inherently, over time, come to be dominated by whatever strategies are effective in winning elections. And we know that the electorate as a whole has become very highly polarized, and even more so among those most likely to vote and make political donations, among whom the number of extreme liberals has quintupled over the last twenty years, and the number of extreme conservatives has tripled over the last ten years.
And now we see the result of that change, as even staid, relatively mainstream candidates like Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie resort to accusing each other of sympathy for MS-13, pedophiles, white nationalists and neo-Nazis. As a candidate, I tried to set an example of civility and respect. And I encouraged the voters to hold the candidates accountable for their rhetoric, and to vote strategically against the lack of civility and disrespect in modern politics.
I think if there is going to be change, it needs to be a non-partisan approach that goes beyond any immediate political campaign or political battle. So I thank Jim for bringing us together and for stepping up and making an effort to change things, because that is exactly what we need. And I am grateful to be involved, and eager to do what I can to help. And I hope some of you here are as well. That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for having me.There are currently no comments highlighted.