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Sunday, December 16 , 2018, 12:14 pm | A Few Clouds 63º


Susan Estrich: Finding Our Way Back to Civil Discourse

'He started it' is no longer a viable excuse; it's time to call an end to our perpetual game of tit-for-tat

I got a very nice e-mail from B.A. in Anchorage. Actually, it wasn’t very nice. She (I think it’s a she, but I don’t know for sure) thinks I’m completely clueless and worse. But that’s OK. She doesn’t think I should be killed or strung up because I disagree with her. Reading the e-mail wasn’t so scary that I had to forward it to the campus police and wonder why I bother. As far as I could tell, B.A. was actually trying to have a civil conversation with me about why she thought I was wrong.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich

God bless her.

It’s been not even a year since this country elected President Barack Obama, a man who ran not to be the black president but the president. As he stood there that night in Chicago, and again a few months later in Washington on the steps of the Capitol, he pledged not to divide the country but to heal the divisions.

What happened?

How is it that nine months into his presidency, the name calling is so out of hand that it’s a relief to get an e-mail you don’t have to delete because it’s full of hateful obscenities? And I’m just a little fish in this fight. I talk to people who are bigger players — elected officials and political leaders, talking heads with their own shows and more newspapers running them than I’ll ever have — and we whisper about how scary it is “out there.” But it’s not “out there.” It’s right here, on your computer, on your radio, on your TV, everywhere you look.

Of course, as B.A. reminded me, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi et al., didn’t exactly treat the presidency with respect when George W. Bush held the job. Neither did many liberal commentators, which is one reason they have their own shows and Web sites and beach houses.

I can say, with all honesty, that I never preached hate, but so what and who cares? Lots of others did, maybe not heckling from the back of Congress in a joint session (sorry, B.A., but I do think that’s different), but certainly in other places.

The problem is that there’s no end to this game of tit-for-tat. You destroy Obama because we destroyed Bush. We destroyed Bush because of what you did to Bill Clinton. Hard economic times only make it easier. It’s not difficult to fire up people when they are frightened and insecure, which so many of us are, with reason. Who doesn’t feel like yelling and screaming when you see your pension disappear or you can’t make your house payments and you don’t even know how to explain to your kids that you don’t have the money to buy them what they want or need?

Two wrongs don’t make a right. “He started it” is not an excuse. Isn’t this what we all teach our children? Why doesn’t it also apply to us? Eight years of wrongs do not justify eight more, and then eight more after that.

Health-care reform is important. But civility and decency are even more important. Our democracy cannot survive without them. Sticks and stones are not the only things that hurt. Names hurt, too. We will end up not just hating our presidents, but hating each other.

So I wrote back to B.A., and she wrote back to me. “May God help us all find our way back to civil discourse,” she said in closing. Amen.

Last weekend marked the beginning of the Jewish New Year. To all of those who are celebrating, Shanah Tovah — a happy and healthy New Year, and one in which we find our way back together.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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