Just to be clear: the Institute for Civility in Government does not endorse any specific policy positions or candidates for office. And we are not endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders for any kind of office now. That said, this week Bernie Sanders had a moment that is exemplary of many of the faces of civility that we explore here on this blog. And we do feel that it is important to give credit where credit is due.
Sanders, a left-wing, politically independent, self-proclaimed socialist from the small northern state of Vermont, running for President as a Democrat, chose to travel to Lynchburg, Virginia this week to speak at Liberty University, a conservative Evangelical Christian institution founded by the late famed televangelist Jerry Falwell, and run today by his son.
His speech, as Jennifer Harper of The Washington Times writes, covered some familiar Sanders ground: he talked about poverty, health care and insurance challenges, youth unemployment, and unequal wealth distribution… equating them with injustice and a lack of ethics and morality. But in framing those positions – and in explaining why he came to Liberty University at all – this is what he had to say:
Let me start off by acknowledging what I think all of you already know. And that is the views that many here at Liberty University have and I, on a number of important issues, are very, very different. I believe in a woman’s rights and the right of a woman to control her own body. I believe gay rights and gay marriage.
Those are my views, and it is no secret. But I came here today because I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.
Too often in our country — and I think both sides bear responsibility for us — there is too much shouting at each other. There is too much making fun of each other.
Now, in my view, and I say this as somebody whose voice is hoarse, because I have given dozens of speeches in the last few months, it is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you…. That’s not hard to do. That’s what politicians by and large do.
We go out and we talk to people who agree with us.
But it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.
And it is important to see where if possible, and I do believe it is possible, we can find common ground.
It is not insignificant, here, that Senator Sanders talks about civility by name. That in itself is valuable in what may well be an uncivil Presidential campaign season.
But what is so important about this statement – what makes it exemplary – is that Sanders insists that we talk, not shout, across the aisle. If the point of the governing process – as we here at the Institute believe – involves listening past one’s preconceptions and disagreeing without disrespect in order to achieve policy outcomes that are acceptable and beneficial to as many people as possible, then the simple act of speaking to the (so-called) other side is an important first step.
And in our bubbled media environment, where it is entirely possible for individuals on the left or the right to see only news that supports their ideologies, going in person to a venue that The Washington Times‘ Cal Thomas jokingly calls the belly of the beast is perhaps the most effective way to bridge that divide.
Sanders’s message, as Laura Turner of the Religion News Service puts it, is that if we could all get on the same page about the idea that we ought to treat other people the way we want to be treated, the world would be a better place to live than it is right now. Sanders says this when he tells Liberty University’s students that if nothing else, progressives and conservative Christians should be on the same page about Matthew 7:12: so in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you. And he says it, too, as he ponders civility: that there is too much shouting at each other. There is too much making fun of each other. And every low blow is an instance where we fail to recognize that disagreement isn’t the end of a conversation, but the beginning.
Sanders, in this speech, is engaging in what Martin Marty calls convicted civility. It is the notion, as John Backman put it here on The Civility Blog last year, that people of strong conviction should seek to have their views heard and respected; but in doing so, they should seek with equal earnestness to hear and respect the convictions of others, even – or perhaps especially – when they disagree.
And in doing so, Sanders is offering a good lesson to all the prospective candidates for every office going into the 2016 election season – and to all the rest of us, too. If more candidates were willing to engage, rather than shun, their version of the belly of the beast, they might have more success listening and being listened to. And in the process, they might find the kind of consensus that leads to good governing and productive policy, and not just a spirited campaign.