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Letter: The election and our democracy

Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., writes, "We live in permanent campaign mode, fueled by division and wedge issues. Heated debate and argument are quite different than the politics of rage, anger, grievance and humiliation that dominate our politics today."

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This political season listening is power. While a lot is at stake in these 2022 midterm elections –control of the House and Senate and dozens of governorships— add another to your list –preserving the nation.

Over 160 years ago, President Lincoln on his way to his 1861 Inauguration, appealed to the American people to, “constantly bear in mind that with YOU, and not with politicians, not with Presidents, not with office-seekers, but with YOU, is the question Shall the Union and shall the liberties of this country be preserved to the latest generations?”

It’s time we put our whole selves into remembering Lincoln’s words and set to the task of preserving the nation. Stop wringing our hands and roll up our sleeves, this is serious.

I was elected to Congress in the wake of Watergate. That assault on democracy by Richard Nixon and his henchmen looks like a middle school lunchroom fight compared to what we are now living through.

Back then, there were many tensions around impeaching a president who won 49 of the 50 states. The Vietnam War had divided many friends, families and ultimately the country. There were demonstrations, the Weather Underground, civil rights marches and violent backlash. Still, we all tried to talk to each other and get through it. Even with deep divisions and violence, there was an impulse for debate, even when it was heated. The institutions of our democracy were the places where arguments took place. And really, isn’t "argument" what engages minds and causes change. Differences worked for us, or rather we found a way to make them work for us. Our basic instinct for curiosity about the other led to conflict, but the conflicts were functional, rooted in an impulse to find solutions, to reach for common ground. Now hate and humiliation seem to rule. Many have asked ‘what binds us together?’

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Invoking appeals to unity require work and opening our minds. Argument, protest, organizing on behalf one’s beliefs and political demands was—and is—the currency of a vibrant democracy.

When I ran for Congress in 1972, political polling was not the driving force it is in politics today. In fact, in my 24 years in office, polls never dictated my campaigns or how I served the people of Denver. Binary thinking, that is yes or no, right direction/wrong direction, for or against thinking that polls measure began to squeeze out the free exchange of competing ideas. Ideas, the heart of democracy, had to take a back seat to temperature taking.

Our public and political life became more about generating blame for problems than working together for solutions. There are no more competing ideas but more competing narratives about blame. “Messaging” has replaced problem solving and action for common sense solutions.

We live in permanent campaign mode, fueled by division and wedge issues. Heated debate and argument are quite different than the politics of rage, anger, grievance and humiliation that dominate our politics today.

I was in Congress when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House and turned up the volume on this scorched earth politics. Gingrich believed they should not debate on the issues but rather hurl names at the other person, labeling then as a radical or worse. He worked with pollsters like Frank Luntz to create a hostile vocabulary to hurl at other members across the aisle. I would often ask the parliamentarian if I had to refer to the gentleman as a gentleman if he wasn’t acting as one. The name calling is the symbol of a politics that seeks to assign blame, inflame and anger the base and hope it leads to voter turnout. Defining problems and debating solutions is non-existent.

We have come to the point where thought itself, much less common sense, is reserved for an increasingly small part of the electorate. This politics and its “leaders” include the political class and the elected officials and the national media who follows them with their sports casting approach that focuses on what they think the strategy or thinking might be about an issue, rather than the relevant facts and choices to consider.

We have two ears and one mouth and yet we talk way more than we listen. No wonder we can’t hear our common humanity. Can we learn to listen more, think again and use our curiosity, our desire to solve problems to protect our families, our communities and preserve “the liberties of this country”? I am up for meeting Lincoln’s challenge, are you?

Patricia Schroeder, D, represented Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1997. This op-ed previously appeared in the Denver Post.

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This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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