After Arizona: We must make democracy work

The Tucson, Arizona, rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, American politics should be more civil. But no, one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence should not trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.
I confess, having written a book in 2008 “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting outside a supermarket at one of Gifford’s “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and-greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol, particularly from the right. The fact that Sarah Palin’s Website featured Giffords'' district and other politicians targeted for political defeat in 2010 with crosshairs on their faces supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.
Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those critics with Kennedy’s murder.
Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words.  The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for the open fields where soldiers fought their long battles, campagne.   “Campaign” became part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt “rallied” his Democratic “troops,” saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.” In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama himself, telegraphed toughness by threatening his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”
“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rivals is not the problem.  As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone, and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably.  Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.
There is too much shouting in American politics today, from left and right, against George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Politics becomes scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one with-me-or-against-me-worldview. As a Democrat who opposes gun control, Gabrielle Giffords herself refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s former Mayor Ed Koch once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”
Israelis should reflect on the harshness of Israeli political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party -- in the old-fashioned, gentlemanly sense, of course.  Most Americans understand when to holster partisan anger – even righteous indignation. Screaming mourners do not disrupt official American ceremonies, as was done in the Carmel last week. And Americans excel at mounting the patriotic tableaus we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on Election Night 2008 when John McCain and Barack Obama spoke so graciously of each other, and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.
In Israel, leftists and rights are capable of demagoguery, demonization and incitement to violence, yet each camp only sees the other’s guilt. And while America’s most extreme voices usually fester on the margins, tempered by the civility of the John McCains and the Barack Obamas, too many shrill Israeli voices emanate from the Knesset itself. Israeli politicians seem to scream “die traitor” as often as Arizonans say “howdy pardner."
Shas rabbis and other Haredim should admit that not all internal critics are heretics. Rightists should acknowledge that not all leftists are unpatriotic. Leftists should concede that not every criticism of them is McCarthyism.  No one needs a rampaging maniac to deliver a wake-up call. We can see it night after night on the news; we must judge it and change it day by day by ourselves.
Israelis, too, know how to rally together, when necessary. Harvard Professor Ruth Wiesse calls Israelis “reverse hypocrites,” whose deeds are frequently more patriotic than their words. And anyone who has stood at attention when the mourning siren sounds on Israel’s Memorial Day knows that Israelis too understand that national loyalties transcend partisanship.
“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity, and an appreciation for the enduring values, common history, and shared fate that bind fellow citizens together.  Political parties work when they help individuals solve problems together; coalition building works best when people have a range of conflicting loyalties, when people might pray together in the morning yet attend competing political meetings that night. Political parties become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a series of reinforcing elements fragmenting the country.
Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and “see how democracy works.” Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.
Americans and Israelis should cultivate a politics of civility, not because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Gabrille Giffords’ lifework, and for our common good.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” among other books.