It was President John F. Kennedy (JFK) in his inaugural address at the height of Cold War who said; “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof.” Strong and meaningful words at a time when the world faced the risk of nuclear war. Yet, these words ring true today when we look at how democracy functions, and how election campaigns are conducted both in Canada and the United States.
In May 2011, Canada held a general election which, according to seasoned observers, was the most aggressive in rhetoric and in the use of more personalized attacks. Currently, the Canadian province of Québec is conducting a general election of its own where the tone is more strident than usual. Are we witnessing the Americanization of political campaigns north of the border?
In the United States, we know that elections campaigns can become blood sports. The current presidential campaign has already been labeled by nearly all pundits as the most negative in years. While the hope is that the arrival of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential candidate will change the nature of the debate to one about ideas, direction of the country, and issues, there seems no evidence of a change in tone in recent days. The rhetoric continues to be negative, polarized and personal.
The purpose here is not to take a position on who should win in these elections, but it is to express the hope that civility in election cycles can once again take its place in the conduct of those campaigns. Voices are rising in greater numbers criticizing the vitriolic tone of the debates. It’s not too late for things to change.
We know that campaigns are not “picnics in the park”. Issues, policies, personalities, and debates rule the day and winning power is ultimately the goal. Campaigning is not reserved for the weak. Advertising, which has seen its share of negativism and half-truths, only adds to the complexity and to the coarseness of a campaign.
My hope is that campaigns on both sides of border can once again be about policy, direction and issues and avoid personal attacks. It is time to heed the call of JFK and see civility “not as a sign of weakness.” We can debate fiercely with our opponents, but the goal must not be to destroy the adversary. Democracy should be, above all, a contest between competing visions aimed at the progress of the common good. May the better ideas and the best persons win.
This may appear overly idealistic and somewhat naïve to political operatives. But I have been active and involved for over 30 years in political activity, including campaigns. I have done my share of hardball tactics against opponents, but I believe that respect for your adversary, his views and the electoral process remain the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. The opposite approach in lower voter turnout, disengagement from public life by some of our best talent, and less involvement and more indifference by our youth on issues that affect their future.
JFK spoke about civility at a time where the possibility of war was real, but his words could easily apply to the functioning of our democracies where consent, engagement and civility are needed to assure their survival and their promise.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is @JohnParisella