Chris Christie’s Moment of Exemplary Civility

Almost two months ago, now, I wrote about a moment of exemplary civility in the presidential primary race. Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed socialist and Senator from Vermont, running for the Democratic nomination for President, reached out across divisions in party, region, religion, and ideology to speak to the students at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

I said then that the Institute does not endorse Sanders (or any other candidate or political position), but that when these sorts of extraordinarily civil moments come along – especially in an election cycle that much of the media is characterizing as particularly rough – it’s important to point them out and give credit where credit is due.

Well, it happened again this past week.

This week, we saw New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a candidate for the Republican nomination for President, transcend party politics and its points-scoring ethos for a moment to speak with passion and humanity about a topic that itself transcends our traditional political bounds: addiction. As Rolling Stone reports, Christie talked about his mother, who took up smoking as a teenager and tried to quit multiple times before she was diagnosed with lung cancer at 71, and then about a close friend whose life was destroyed by a painkiller addiction.

He spoke out against the blame game – the notion that people who become addicted to a substance deserve what they get – and in favor of institutions that privilege recovery over punishment and help people reorder their lives:

It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country. Not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover because every life is precious. Every life is an individual gift from God. And we have to we stop judging and start giving them the tools they need to get better.

What’s interesting about this as a trans-partisan moment is that Governor Christie’s politics did not go away. I am pro-life, he told his listeners. There’s no arguing about that. But he continued by telling them that in his view, if you’re pro-life, that means you’ve got to be pro-life for the whole life. Not just for the nine months they’re in the womb.

What he told his base of conservative supporters, in other words, is that he is with them – he shares their values. But at the same time, those values don’t preclude the possibility of finding common ground with people who hold different beliefs. And in fact, even the most central of conservative policy positions can be a conduit through, rather than a hindrance to, finding agreement across ideological conviction.

As if to underscore this, Governor Christie’s words reflected those of Pope Francis, much beloved by American progressives, who in September told a joint session of Congress that the golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

Questions of partisanship aside, however, what makes Governor Christie’s words truly exemplary of civility are their humanity. Fox News called his comments deeply personal. Rolling Stone said he shared an intensely personal pair of anecdotes. But the fact that the topic of addiction is close to Chris Christie’s heart is beside the point.

What his speech does is acknowledge that we all share a common humanity, whether or not we are afflicted by addiction, and that that commonality requires we act with compassion. It’s easy to be pro-life for the nine months you’re in the womb, he told his audience. They haven’t done anything to disappoint us yet. But it’s just as important to care for the 16-year-old teenage girl on the floor of the country lockup, addicted to heroin. Because, as he says later, there but for the grace of God go I.

If we take as our starting point that civility is about claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, then this acknowledgment that we are all, at our core, the same, is key. It’s key to the notion of empathy – the idea that the drive of other people to pursue their needs and beliefs matters as much, or nearly as much, as our own. And it’s key to building the kind of trust that allows substantive discussions of policy – or anything else, really – to move forward: it’s about offering validation of our partners’ fundamental right to come to the table, even if we disagree about every other point.

As I said about Bernie Sanders last month, the Institute does not endorse Chris Christie or his positions. But in speaking about a difficult and sensitive topic, he offers a model for the kind of behavior that might lead us out of campaign quibbling and toward substantial, inclusive discussion.  And that’s a thing that we definitely want to applaud.

The full video of Chris Christie’s remarks can be found here.

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