In 1690, John Locke contrasted civil from philosophical discourse in Book III of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It is commonly defined as “conversation designed to enhance understanding.” Judging from the rhetoric that has become increasingly common over the past decade, it is apparent that the stake has been driven through the heart, and Civil Discourse is now officially deceased.

Politicians and elected officials more often than not put party and self ahead of the what’s best for the country. Obstructionism is a political tactic. News networks exist solely to advance propaganda (well, they have to make money, too). Political opponents and people with different opinions on issues are demonized as socialists or Nazis or Angels of Death. No one cares about bridging gaps, coming to consensus, and accomplishing things for the greater good. It’s all about getting one’s point across and shouting the other side down.

And what has the death of Civil Discourse brought us? It has spawned a government that is basically broken. It seems that only in times of extreme crisis and national emergency that our leaders can come together in anything closely resembling bipartisanship.

After 9/11, we were united in our desire to root out the terrorist slime that had taken so many innocent lives and forever scarred our nation. The sympathy of the world was with us. Unfortunately, politics-as-usual took over, the opportunity was squandered, and Osama Bin-Laden still sends out his poison videos.

After President George W. Bush was briefed on just how bad the economic meltdown was – and how we were facing a real global financial catastrophe – Republicans and Democrats came together and passed TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), which President Bush signed into law on October 3, 2008. This program, criticized as a $700 billion taxpayer bailout of banks and insurance companies, has actually been a success.

Virtually all of the money spent has been repaid, and as of October 5, 2010, the most recent final estimate of the actual cost is $30 billion – and a global financial collapse was averted. Instead of using this as an example of how working together can actually work, right-wing critics actually cite TARP as a method that the current “socialist” President used to “nationalize” our banks and car companies – even though it was supported by many Republicans and was signed into law by President Bush. Surprisingly, our Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen voted YES on TARP, while our Democrat Senator, Bill Nelson, voted NO.

The continued infusion of Big Money into political campaigns means we’re probably in for more of the same rhetoric and name-calling. When it comes to huge dollar signs, the ends justify the means, no matter how many lies are told in the process. How much “free speech” can you afford to buy?

Where do we as a nation, and as a community, go from here? The old adage advises us to “Think Globally, and Act Locally.” Perhaps we can start by treating each other with respect and dignity. Stop the name-calling and shouting, and actually start listening to what the other person is saying. Recognize that a difference of opinion does not necessarily mean that the other person is evil. Find the areas of common ground that we share, and build from there. Recognize that we all won’t agree on everything, but that we can disagree agreeably. Understand that our system of government was originally designed to facilitate majority rule while respecting minority rights. Respect the process.

And then start demanding that our elected officials, our candidates, our media outlets, our moneyed interests, and our political parties start doing the same. If we start tuning out the radicals, if we quit giving them a voice, then they can simply shout to themselves all they want.

One of the biggest lessons I learned as a three-term Marathon City Council Member is that everyone has a point of view, and that not everyone was going to agree with mine.

As residents and constituents, their points of view were just as valid as mine, and they may have had reasons for feeling the way they did on any given issue. By trying to understand those reasons, and not looking upon those with a different opinion as “the enemy,” it helped me craft compromises and make decisions that were (hopefully) in everyone’s best interest.

When former State Representative Ken Sorenson swore the first Marathon Council in, he suggested that we commit ourselves to comity – mutual courtesy and civility – and that we’d accomplish more for the greater good of our community if we did. He was right.

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