Believing in Respectful Conversation this Holiday Season

Parents listen to their daughter during dinner in the family's home. (CNS photo illustration/Sid Hastings)
Parents listen to their daughter during dinner in the family’s home. (CNS photo illustration/Sid Hastings)
In New Hampshire this past weekend, Gov. Martin O’Malley, Democrat of Maryland, told more than 1,000 Democratic activists that pride in oneself and in one’s city is able to transform lives and communities. Speaking at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Manchester, the Catholic O’Malley recalled his tenure as mayor of Baltimore in the early 2000s, which at that time was the most violent city in the United States. He highlighted a campaign he started to drive down crime and drive up pride. It was simple, he said, once residents believed things could be better. The program was called simply, Believe.

“Belief is important. Belief drives action. Now, like Baltimore in 1999, we, as Americans, are going through a cynical time of disbelief — a time, quite frankly, with a lot more excuses and ideology than cooperation or action,” he said.

O’Malley was introduced by a gauzy black and white video that many in the room considered a marketing test for a possible 2016 run for the White House. It highlighted the reduction in crime in Baltimore, as well as more recent accomplishments, including Maryland’s top marks in education, innovation, and employment. Interestingly, it also touted O’Malley’s support for the same-sex marriage bill he signed into law, foreshadowing the likelihood of the first crop of major presidential candidates who will openly support gay marriage. O’Malley also successfully advocated for the repeal of Maryland’s death penalty.

Continuing with the “believe” motif, the governor concluded his remarks with, “Let us achieve like Americans again. Let us lead like Americans again. Let us believe like Americans again.”

It was an energizing and, at times, inspiring speech. Someone leaned over to me during it and whispered, “I’d vote for him right now!” Belief in America, apparently, works.

The 2016 campaign is years away and we’re still reeling from a particularly nasty election last year. Still, I can’t help but wonder if positive messages of hope and belief in our better natures will be effective in our political discourse or if nastiness is the new normal. Will the message of hope and change that inspired so many in 2008 be a nostalgic relic of the past come 2016?

Earlier this month, I was subjected to a barrage of political ads for Virginia’s gubernatorial and attorney general elections, since the northern Virginia media market is served by stations in DC where I live. The ads sought to convince viewers that the Democrats hope to tax and kill the wealthy and that the Republicans hope to chain women inside the home. It wasn’t particularly inspiring, and the incredibly low voter turnout sort of proves that voters aren’t compelled to work too hard to support mediocrity.

We’re just a week out from Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday season. I’m most looking forward to spending time with family and friends back home and my mind will, God willing, be far from politics. Yet politicians of all stripes tout the importance of family, and being home for the holidays reminds me that I’m happiest when I’m with family. With this in mind, it was a bit jarring to read about the drama currently surrounding the Cheney family.

Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is running for the U.S. Senate from Wyoming in a somewhat quixotic campaign to oust fellow Republican Senator Mike Enzi. To bolster her conservative bona fides, Liz has been hammering away that she supports traditional marriage, much to the chagrin of her sister, Mary, who is married to her wife with whom she raises their children. Mary publicly lamented these developments on her Facebook page and a bit of a feud has developed. As Robin Abcarian of the LA Times asked, “What kind of woman sells out her sister for a shot at a U.S. Senate seat?”

I’m still of the mind that a reasonable individual can have legitimate concerns over supporting same-sex marriage, but in this case, it does seem that a politician is waffling on an issue that hits home for her family. Might make for an awkward Thanksgiving dinner in the Cheney home this year.
Family is society’s most important institution, as the Church rightly points out. But it’s not immune from the nastiness of politics. This isn’t a revelation we needed the Cheneys to highlight. How many of us have sat nervously through family meals when politics or religion comes up, wondering who will say which offensive remark?

But this Thanksgiving, if politics does somehow rear its head over the football and turkey, perhaps we can commit to being a bit more aspirational in our conversation. Instead of slamming the “tax-and-spend liberals” or “Tea Party fascists,” maybe we can try to say something positive instead. Talk about the notable women and men who inspire us, or the historical struggles for justice that have formed us. If we believe we can raise the political discourse at home, perhaps we can. And maybe this belief, once realized, can spread into our national conversation. It’s worth a shot, after all, since we’re only a couple of years away from another relentless barrage of negative campaign ads and demonization. Let’s be the change we want to see. Happy Thanksgiving.