To most observers, the tone and tenor of today’s political debates is growing increasingly ugly and disheartening. Every time we see a politician or a talking head on TV spewing more divisive rhetoric, the first inclination for many people is to change the channel.
Each new day in the nation’s capital brings another round of one-upmanship and scorched-earth tactics. The vicious spiral of political discourse makes most viewers wish they could tune out altogether.
Unfortunately, many citizens do just that and ultimately don’t participate in the political process, further contributing to division in our country.
Amid all of this hostility and negativity, the Lancaster County community recently found a beacon of hope in our local high school students.
LNP and Donegal High School hosted the second annual Democracy Day on November 1, encouraging young people from throughout the region to come together and debate some of the most controversial issues of the day, honestly and respectfully.
The discussion was focused on the life lessons famously transcribed in George Washington’s “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.’’
One such rule was particularly fitting for this event: “Speak not injurious words, neither in jest nor earnest. Scoff at none although they give occasion.”
As our young people debated hot-button issues like gun control, immigration, health care, and other topics that typically raise passionate objections, they observed Washington’s rules to the letter and exceeded every expectation.
It was an outstanding exercise in listening to one another and working to understand opposing viewpoints, and the young people participating in the event performed with flying colors.
The goal was not for one side to claim victory over another; the objective was to exchange ideas in a respectful manner that acknowledges our differences and celebrates our shared priorities.
We can only hope that this message extends beyond the walls of Donegal High School to Harrisburg and Washington, where the daily partisan bickering only serves to push us further apart.
Although there are still bitter divisions in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the overwhelming majority of actions taken in November were completed with a spirit of bipartisanship that was reminiscent of the measured approach demonstrated by our local students.
After years of study and debate, the Senate moved forward with a compromise on minimum wage.
Incremental boosts over the next two years will raise the hourly wage from $7.25 to $9.50.
The compromise found a middle ground that acknowledges the need to help those on the beginning rungs of the economic ladder, without ignoring the economic realities facing small businesses.
The General Assembly also passed long-sought reforms to help child victims of sexual abuse – an issue that remained mired in partisan bickering at the end of the last two-year legislative session.
After a months-long stalemate that included bitter insults from lawmakers and interest groups, and deep-seeded anger and frustration on both sides, we came together this year to reach a compromise that all sides could support.
As a result, victims will finally have an opportunity to find some sense of justice for the unspeakable crimes they faced decades ago.
In both of these debates, neither side got everything they wanted.
Some wanted a $15-an-hour minimum wage; some wanted no increase at all. Some wanted immediate remedies to decades-old abuse cases that could have run contrary to the Constitution; others supported a Constitutional amendment approach that they believe would be more likely to withstand legal challenge, but requires victims to wait longer before the option to seek justice is available to them.
In the end, all parties found common ground, even if no side felt like the solutions were perfect – and all recognized that more work still remains.
More importantly, setting aside our differences and dedicating ourselves to truly listening to each other allowed us to work together for the interests of the people who need our help most.
It is incumbent upon us to continue to work in the spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship in the months and years ahead, rather than allowing the debate to be taken to a place unworthy of our people and our mandate to govern.
As we move forward, George Washington’s rules can again serve as a guide: “In disputes, be not so desirous to overcome, as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion.”
We should heed these words and ensure we are truly listening to understand, and not simply to respond.
If high school students can learn these lessons and put them to good use, so too can the adults who seek and hold elected office.