Are Our Candidates Bringing Out the Best - or the Worst?

Can presidential candidates who bring out the worst in each other bring out the best in America?

This question has been on my mind long before the dirty name-calling on the 2016 campaign. A quarter of a century ago, when eight candidates were competing for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992, I asked Pat Riley, then the successful basketball coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, which one he favored.

"I wouldn't put any one of them on my team," he said firmly.

"Why not?" I asked him.

"I make my players sign a covenant to bring out the best in every other person on the team," he explained. "These guys are doing just the opposite."

Every four years, we witness the same dispiriting display of American politicians dragging each other into the gutter. This year we are witnessing once again some remarkably talented diverse men, and one extremely experienced woman, making each other look as bad as possible. Sadly, after a few brief shining moments early in the campaign, it has been a long descent into mutually assured destruction.

Is this inevitable? Is this just "politics?" Or is it a path to national decline?
Reasonable observers of American politics differ on this question. Some believe that animosity, personal attacks and counterattacks, deception and falsehood, and hundreds of millions in negative advertising is not only what we should expect but is actually good for America. These "realists" argue that politics is hardball and that candidates must show how they differ from each other and that exposing the others' weaknesses is a vital part of the electoral process.
Others, often called "idealists," maintain that our political culture is dangerously toxic. They believe that reasonable, thoughtful dialogue has virtually disappeared, and that we have become so politically paralyzed. Instead of celebrating the abrasive tactics and ugly attacks, they view them as a sign of a nation that has lost its way.

The truth, I believe, requires a deeper analysis. "Communication" is only a tool for getting things done. So the real question is not: Should we "talk politely" or "talk straight?" The more fundamental question is: Are we going to deal effectively with the challenges facing America -- or not?

The good news is that our culture is experiencing a rediscovery of collaboration and problem-solving. Even while the high-profile party candidates with billions of dollars attack each other, evidence abounds that we, the people, know how to cross the divide:
  • In state legislatures, Next Generation (a project of NICD) is working across the aisle in more than a dozen state legislatures and building cross-party relationships that are reversing the downward slide toward dysfunction.

  • Across the country, the more than two thousand members of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation are supporting a wide range of community processes that are transforming paralysis into progress.
  • Many local communities have given birth to their own unique "transpartisan" forums. Some, like Tallahassee's Village Square and Kansas City's American Public Square, are issue-based. Others, like Boston's Public Conversations Projects or the California-based Living Room Conversations, are more process-oriented. But all have produced significant breakthroughs on a wide range of issues.
  • In addition, the list of policy areas where Left-Right coalitions have formed is growing rapidly. From reforming the criminal justice system to energy and environment, from internet privacy rights to immigration reform, amazing sets of "strange bedfellows" partnerships have coalesced that are having an impact on policymaking in state capitals and Washington, D.C.
  • Journalists, too, are moving toward change. The Solution Journalism Network, for example, is working with a network of major metropolitan newspapers across the country to focus their resources on problem-solving rather than partisan positioning.
  • Inside the Beltway, many relatively new nonprofit organizations -- from the Liberty Coalition to Convergence to the National Institute of Civil Discourse (NICD) -- are forging consensus and collaboration.
  • Even on Capitol Hill, dozens of members of the US Congress have joined a "Problem-Solving Caucus (organized by No Labels) that is promoting a set of shared goals called the National Strategic Agenda.
  • So let's not become too obsessed with the election coverage that we miss this deeper story. Beneath the divided states of America being whipped into a frenzy by the media, there is a united states of America that is learning how to work through differences and rediscover our common bonds.

    Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.

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