Suppose, just suppose, that a political strategy focused solely on civility. If you’re not mean to me, I won’t be mean to me. If you don’t throw darts, I won’t throw them. We’ll simply stress policy differences grounded in fact and record, not distortion and innuendo.
No sooner did the gubernatorial primary elections conclude on June 26, 2018, than Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic challenger Ben Jealous went for the jugular. Of course, they did. They needed to appeal immediately to their base supporters and raise money and interest.
They needed to set their marks: I will attack and set the agenda; I will define you. That’s how the game is played. No time for niceties.
So, back to fantasyland.
Through some unexpected and unworldly stroke of reconciliation, Hogan and Jealous would tell us their top priorities, and how they would accomplish them. No mud-slinging. Just wonkish details and rationale.
Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Are you (this optimistic writer) crazy, living in a world inhabited by goody two-shoes people who don’t understand that politics is a contact sport fought by people who understand that magnanimity belongs in church or a book group, not in electoral combat?
More and more I hear people say they no longer read the paper or watch the TV news regularly. They say they are tired of strife and dissidence. They want a break from unsettling, upsetting news. They prefer reading a book.
Or doing anything to ignore the onslaught of infuriating information.
Allow me to admit a tinge of hypocrisy. I sometimes have found myself subconsciously urging a politician to take off the gloves and verbally pummel his or her opponent. That usually unspoken advice has nothing to do with civility, a concept I constantly espouse. It has no connection to the better angels I applauded in a past column. It’s just a guttural feeling. I don’t feel proud of this periodic outbreak of antagonistic thoughts.
My tack this time is different. I’m suggesting that a candidate “out-nice” an opponent. I suggest engaging in no personal attack. I suggest occupying the proverbial high ground and avoid sinking into the depths of dishing dirt and damnation.
It’s possible the heat has affected my thinking. It’s possible the murder of five journalists at the Annapolis Capital Gazette has softened my soul; another mass shooting and pervasive community grief have caused me to think about the emptiness of political combat. It’s possible that a visit to the Talbot County Fair, briefly watching the goat judging, prompted me to value simplicity.
Reality sets in quickly. Discord and condemnation underscore the political process. It’s always been true. Competition breeds contempt.
The public, while fatigued by non-stop partisanship and bickering, subliminally enjoy the rancor and recrimination. Gladiators thrill the masses.
Civility is tough to achieve. Tougher to sustain. It’s easier to choose our camp, our corner in the ring, and then continue to swing away. Our side will be victorious. Concession and conciliation are for the weak. The fight goes on.
I’ll keep hoping for compromise and civil discourse. I’ll try to control my contradictory impulse to win at any cost. It’s not worth it.
I welcome your comments. I suspect a pervasive response will be: “You must be deranged, driven by fantasy and foolishness.”
That reaction would be understandable.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.