Do voters have the power to insist on civil dialogue from candidates seeking election?

By Murray Galinson

Guest Commentary

I had the opportunity to be present as San Diego’s two mayoral candidates, Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner, met in a debate on Sept. 7 at La Jolla Country Day School.

The debate was co-sponsored by the City Club and the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC). The people asking questions included students from the Preuss School and La Jolla Country Day High School.

The students’ focus was for the future of San Diego. Thorough research and in a strong desire to understand the issues, tough questions were posed.

The debate was moderated by Steve Dinkin, president of NCRC, based in San Diego.

My interest in the debate was to see how the two candidates behaved toward one another. Were they going to be civil or not? This debate, a symbol of the political discourse flooding our country right now, was a wonderful opportunity for the candidates to model the skills of vigorously arguing the issues, right and wrong, rather than good and bad, and finding ways to disagree without demonizing. Since the beginning of time, politics has always been about rigorous debate and passionate arguments. That’s not incivility, that’s politics.

I am not sure if it was because Steve Dinkin from NCRC began by setting a tone of civility, or if it was the presence of the high school students, that helped to keep what could have become ugly, aggressive rhetoric under control. I noticed how hard it was at times for the candidates, but they persisted and managed well for the most part.

So, I began to wonder: is there a way for the public, the audience, the voters, to find a way to insist on civil dialogue from those seeking office? Why do we tolerate divisive language? Do we have a power that we don’t use effectively for the good of politics, for the empowerment of the candidates and for the betterment of all the citizens of our great country?

Bill Clinton commented on civility in his remarks at the Democratic National Convention this year when he said: “When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good, but what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation.”

Could we, the people, consider a zero tolerance policy for dismissive, intolerant attitudes, hostility, negativity and demonizing by politicians trying to further their own goals? It will be interesting to see what happens in future debates, with different moderators, and without the students.

As these candidates seek our trust, we look to them to make wise, balanced, fair decisions for the future of our communities.

I ask you to join me in endorsing the idea of co-operation and civil dialogue. Let us begin to challenge all of our politicians to stay within the guidelines of civil discourse. San Diego deserves civility in our Mayor and we should insist upon it. The citizens of the United States deserve civility in all of our public leaders, and we should not accept anything less!

My sincere compliments to the City Club, the students of La Jolla Country Day School and the Preuss School, as well as the National Conflict Resolution Center and, most importantly, Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio for an informative and very civil debate. You see it can be done and the voters appreciate and deserve it.