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Op-Ed: Political Dialogue in U.S. Poisoned by Anger, Violence

A few days ago, Republican candidate for Secretary of State Carl Nett sent an ill-advised tweet in which he jokes about using Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth for target practice.
I’m glad that many Republicans are rebuking the tweet, including the Scott County Republican Party which rescinded his invitation to speak at their Lincoln Day Dinner, but can’t understand why more of my fellow Republicans aren’t also calling for Nett to withdraw from the race.
After all, it hasn’t even been a full year since a gun-wielding Bernie Sanders supporter opened fire on Congressional Republicans who were practicing in Alexandria, Virginia for a bipartisan baseball game. Kentucky’s own U.S. Senator Rand Paul was there that day, only a few feet from his five colleagues who were shot. One of those injured, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, just had another surgery in January as part of his long road to recovery from the injuries he suffered.
So why are we seeing Kentucky Republicans wringing their hands over the question of whether Nett should end his candidacy for Congress?
Maybe it’s a reflection of the circus atmosphere of our national political scene. Last week, Joe Biden – former Vice President and elder statesman – bragged that if he were still in high school, he would “beat the hell out of” President Trump. Trump responded in a tweet saying that Biden “would go down fast and hard.”
But displays of bravado like these aren’t funny. What we’re seeing is a poisonous injection of anger and violence into our political dialogue. It’s time to stop the implicit acceptance of threatened harm as “joking.”
Like anyone, I know that Kentucky political arena is no place for the thin-skinned. But if candidates are serious about turning around our country, they ought to be able to win election to office on the strength of their ideas, not the intensity of their broadsides. (The annual Fancy Farm picnic being the only exception to this rule.)
And if we’re serious about electing politicians who will work together to make progress for our country, we need to demand a higher level of civil discourse from our political leaders.
Civil discourse isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s quite the opposite. Voters are more likely to respect candidates who can win and lose graciously, acknowledge the humanity in their opponents, stay out of the gutter, and avoid the type of shrill exaggeration that turn every issue into an outrage.
After the terrible 2011 Tucson shooting at the “Congress on Your Corner” event that killed six people and seriously injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, leaders from both sides of the aisle came together to condemn the direction and heated rhetoric of our politics.
Giffords and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton now sit on the advisory board of the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse, which based at the University of Arizona and works to engage elected officials and everyday Americans on the importance of strengthening our relationships, finding common ground, and demonstrating respect for one another.
I’m on the board too. I joined not just because of my friendship with Giffords, but because I believe in the Institute’s mission. When I was Kentucky Secretary of State, I held firm to my views but tried my best to work civilly with Republicans and Democrats alike. I attribute my success in office to that approach.
Our American system of democracy is predicated on the idea that all of us – regardless of political party – cooperate to find consensus. You’ll find this bedrock American principle at every level – from the school board, to Congress, to the Supreme Court.
To be clear, civility doesn’t mean that politicians have to agree. Nor do we expect them to compromise away their principles. To actually build a governing body where elected officials collaborate, we need to choose candidates who are willing and able to speak with members of other political parties, build relationships, listen to one another, and make a concerted effort to work together.
I hope thar Carl Nett does the right thing and drops out of the race. If he stays in the race, he will never get my vote, and I encourage all Kentuckians to take a stand and soundly reject Nett – and any candidates like him – who intimate, joke about, or call for violence against any of their opponents.
All Kentuckians need to send a message that this isn’t who we are.
Trey Grayson, a Republican, is an attorney with Frost Brown Todd. He served as Secretary of State of Kentucky from 2004 to 2011. He is an advisory board member of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
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