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The two rules of curing political rancor

We could reshape American politics by adopting civility and friendship.

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The statue of President Abraham Lincoln is seen at the Lincoln Memorial, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Washington.

Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Rancor in our politics is like the weather. It’s everywhere. Also like the weather, as Mark Twain said, everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

That can change. We could reshape American politics now by adopting two simple rules, each named after the American president who wrote it. 

The Eisenhower Rule says: “Reserve criticism for private conference. Speak only good in public.” Dwight David Eisenhower followed this rule his entire public life, which helps explain why he was one of the last U.S. presidents widely admired by both Republicans and Democrats. Ike had many critics whose policies he publicly and vigorously opposed and to whom he spoke bluntly in private, but he never publicly attacked an adversary. In public, he spoke only good of others.

The Lincoln Rule says: “If you would win a person to your cause, first convince them that you are their sincere friend.” Abraham Lincoln probably endured more public abuse than any other leader of his generation. But he typically treated even his harshest critics with tolerance and charity. He knew that argument without kindness rarely works and that warm engagement is far more persuasive than correct instruction. 

No public attacks. Start with friendship. Following these simple rules would make everything better. Would the sun shine brighter? Would all rainy days produce rainbows? Well, maybe not — but almost. Consider just a few of the wonderful benefits we’d enjoy.       

Our entire media world would be turned inside out. TV news organizations which abandoned political goodwill long ago would either change course or face financial ruin. Our most famous commentators would either transform their on-air personalities or be rendered speechless. How great would that be? 

Disallowing unkind attacks in our print media would reduce total print output dramatically, thus not only saving our sanity and many journalists’ souls, but also saving many trees from being pulped into paper. In fact, much political journalism as currently practiced would simply disappear under the new rules, causing many new jobs and opportunities to open up for those bold enough to try something more respectable.

The worst features of social media would disappear. Political talk on Facebook and Twitter would self-decontaminate. People who leave snarky, mean-spirited comments under everything they read would no longer feel free to do so, which would largely eliminate online commenting. Are you feeling the possibilities here?

But there’s more. We’d become better individuals. The millions of hours we now devote to bad-mouthing each other over politics would suddenly free up. Think of all those reclaimed hours to fill with genuine pleasures!

Let’s talk about manners. Our wisest authorities on the subject teach us that good manners are less about knowing which fork to use than knowing when and how to practice self-restraint in consideration of others. The goal of minding your manners isn’t good form, but a better heart.

Courage is arguably the chief virtue, because it gives us strength to live out the other virtues, even when doing so appears naïve or likely to invite ridicule.

That’s why our two rules could usher in a golden age of good manners. We’d continue to disagree, often strongly, and sometimes over first principles, but publicly ridiculing those with whom we disagree would no longer signal one’s virtue. We might not feel friendly toward our opponents, but we’d at least need to pretend that we do. Feigned decency in political conduct would be the new tax that vice pays to virtue. And who knows? As we fake it, we might begin to make it.

Let’s talk about our health. Would less malice in our political debate mean fewer strokes and heart attacks linked to high blood pressure, chronic stress and debilitating anger? Would treating each other with more respect produce citizens with more resilience, less down-heartedness and depression, and fewer feelings of alienation and isolation? Perhaps. We might discover that political decency is also a public health measure.

I’m confident that we’d be spiritually healthier. We’d wash off a thick coating of ethical slime to which we’ve tragically become accustomed. We’d feel morally cleaner, like happy children in fresh clothes. We’d rediscover the teaching of the Scriptures: “A kind answer turns away wrath.

What’s holding us back from what we need so much? Courage. Courage is arguably the chief virtue, because it gives us strength to live out the other virtues, even when doing so appears naïve or likely to invite ridicule. Today in the United States, a bit of courage is all we need to find what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. 

David Blankenhorn is president of Braver Angels, a citizens group working for less rancor and more goodwill in America.