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A Drop of Ink: Legislators: Communicate, Don’t Alienate

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By Reed Anfinson

Columns from our state representatives and senators can be essential sources on legislation at the state Capitol that will have an impact on the residents of the district and the roadblocks it faces.

Their columns inform us of their efforts to overcome these roadblocks, and perhaps, how they work with members on the other side of the political aisle. They also give us insight into the personalities of those who serve us in St. Paul.

However, over the years, these columns have become more about tearing down the opposing party and its members than informing constituents. They demean and ridicule. In doing so, they smear every constituent back home who is a member of that opposing party.

When we see a political column that states: “Driver’s License for All is the all-access pass for potential terrorists and criminals,” we know its aim is deception and the creation of fear. When we read the words “hostage,” “extremist,” and “radical,” we see words to inflame passions and heighten anxiety. They are loosely tethered to the truth – just enough to lend legitimacy to the topic but far from accurately telling the story of the legislation under consideration.

Following the lessons learned from social media, political parties include words that trigger deep emotions of outrage and fear to gain the most “likes” and “shares.” And just as the internet has divided us into bitter camps, not trusting or respecting one another, politicians, through their columns, can deepen our divisions rather than heal them.

What we find strange with some of the columns we receive is they don’t reflect the character of people we’ve gotten to know through conversations about their candidacies and eventual public service. In one-on-one conversations with our area’s state senators and representatives, we find them engaging, thoughtful, and civil.

They recognize we have common goals in improving our schools, supporting the construction of affordable housing, and funding child care programs in our communities – all three fundamental to attracting more people to rural Minnesota to fill the many vacancies in our labor force.

We want to see our roads and bridges maintained and state funding for our local governments so we can reduce the local property tax burden. We need funding to support mental health programs currently sorely stretched in our rural communities.

As we discuss these rural challenges, they don’t use the same inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising words we see in the columns sent from St. Paul. Despite having so much in common with constituents of the other party, their words are full of scorn. They encourage their fellow party members to despise the other political party and in doing so, every local person who belongs to it.

We understand a politician’s column is an opinion piece. However, there is a difference between explaining why you support or oppose specific legislation and writing with the sole purpose of vilifying its supporters, stoking fear and resentment. With the coarsening of political debate, we increase the potential for angry confrontations and violence against those whose beliefs don’t align with ours. We’ve seen the consequences in rising death threats against school boards, election workers, journalists, and opposing party members.

“In every discussion, the person on the other side probably loves their country as much as you love our country; cares about their children’s and grandchildren’s future as much as you do; treasures the truth as much as you do,” the late columnist and News Hour commentator Mark Shields said. Understanding this, “you don’t demonize somebody on the other side.”

Civility and mutual respect are essential to building bridges as we work toward compromises at home and in St. Paul. How we speak to one another either builds those bridges or tears them down.

Founding Father James Madison, who played a crucial role in writing the U.S. Constitution, said it was human nature to divide ourselves into camps inflamed with “mutual animosity.” These camps are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” He saw danger to the future of the republic in these inherent traits.

Madison had no idea that one day there would be a mode of communication, the internet, that would constantly pour gasoline on our baser political instincts.

“Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three,” Jonathon Haidt wrote in an article for The Atlantic magazine.

Our representative democracy has become more fragile as we’ve broken the “ties that bind.” We are fragmented and increasingly find compromising for the common good difficult.

Community newspapers aren’t the mouthpiece for political action committees or political caucuses. We sell advertising space for partisan promotion of political talking points. When we receive columns that grossly distort the truth, and are more interested in driving fear and anger, we won’t print them.

Our elected leaders set the tone for political and civic conversations.

“If Americans continue to ignore or devalue core civic virtues such as commitment to civil discourse, respect for the rights of others, concern for the common good, and compassion for those in need, our experiment in democratic freedom is doomed,” Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center writes.

Here is some advice for legislators and letter writers:

- Communicate, don’t alienate.

- Respect all your readers, not just your political base or allies.

- Don’t give us only political party talking points but also provide us with your ideas for strengthening our rural communities, protecting our health, and providing sound government financial management.

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