The Golden Rule of Politics

We are two people with very different points of view and political beliefs. Whenever we talk, we quickly find issues we disagree on and are certain there are many other differences that we haven't yet discovered.
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We are two people with very different points of view and political beliefs. Whenever we talk, we quickly find issues we disagree on and are certain there are many other differences that we haven't yet discovered. At the same time, as we have gotten to know each other, we've also found we share some important views about where we are as a country and what we need to do to move forward.

Our most obvious personal connection is that we have both had the rare experience of working in the White House -- one for President Bill Clinton and the other for President George W. Bush -- where we had jobs communicating with the public. While working in the White House, we both learned similar lessons about what works and doesn't work in communication. We also saw firsthand the importance of trust and personal relationships in politics.

As we have talked about our experiences in government, we have discovered we also share something else -- a deep concern about the current direction of our nation's political discourse. Politics has always been hard hitting and we know what that looks like better than most. However, the tone and content of much of today's political discussion seems less civil and more divisive than at any time in our memory. There is too much demonizing in political rhetoric and too little discussion of the common ground we share as Americans. We are both very concerned that our politics is being poisoned in a way that makes it much more difficult to solve the real problems we face as a nation. That's why we've been working together with the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington during the past year to encourage both Members of Congress and their staff to practice greater civility in political discussions.

As we enter 2015 and a new Congress begins its work, it's a good time to reflect on what can be done to change the tone in Washington as well as the way that politics is discussed in cities and towns across the country. Fortunately, we have found that there is another thing we share -- a belief there is a way out of our dilemma. You can't force people to practice civility and engage in respectful dialogue, but each of us controls how we act towards others and has a choice to make. If enough of us -- elected officials, the media, lobbyists, and citizens -- choose to act differently and promote respectful dialogue then, eventually, the whole tone of our national discourse can shift.

We also share the belief that a clear guideline already exists on how to do this. We think there is no better standard than the teaching we've learned from our shared Christian faith that we should "treat others as we want to be treated." This principle, which our society calls the Golden Rule, is also found in other faith traditions and is one of the universal insights we humans share about how we should interact with each other. Some may think that a call to follow the Golden Rule is trite or perhaps a bit naïve. On the contrary, we think it is a practical guideline that, if utilized, can transform our politics.

Think for a minute about how things would be different if we let the Golden Rule be our guide in the way we talk about political issues. If our goal is really to treat others like we want to be treated, then that leads us to the obvious question: "How would I like others to behave towards me when I'm in a political discussion with them?" Most of us would answer that question with things like: show respect to me, listen patiently, try to understand my point of view, use precise language and be open to learning from me.

Similarly, it's helpful to think of the things I don't want other people to do when I am talking to them. Obvious answers to that might be that I don't want them to impugn my motives, distort my position, assault my character, get angry with me or make broad generalizations that aren't accurate. As we discuss tough issues, we don't have to back down on our views or compromise our beliefs. However, asking the question about how we want others to communicate with us and trying to respond in kind can help make such conversations both more pleasant and more productive.

Those of us who have had the great privilege of serving at the highest levels of government need to remind those who are involved in politics today that there have been times when political rhetoric was not so sharp and poisoned as it is now. Whatever excess we all may be guilty of in our work as "spin doctors" might be cured with a little more kindness and gentleness in the way we approach our communication about politics. We also need to remember that the Golden Rule is more than an abstract principle or a concept for an ideal world. It offers practical guidance on how all of us should conduct our political discussions.

In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama decried the sorry state of our political discourse when he made an appeal for what he called "better politics." That was one point where he got agreement from more than several Republican leaders in Congress. We pray that both the President and the new Republican majority in Congress will truly embrace that goal as they interact with each other in the contentious debates that are to come in 2015. If they -- and all of us -- really want to change the tone in our politics then we need to keep in mind that there is no better tool than the Golden Rule. It can have a transformative impact if we just give it a chance.

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