What has happened to the tone of politics in America?
Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth (Missouri) believes the missing component is that people have forgotten about the importance of “friendship and personal relationships.”
Danforth spoke during an all-school presentation in the afternoon, then held an evening question-and-answer session on Dec. 6. He also visited his granddaughter, Charlotte Root ’18 (Indianapolis). His appearance was sponsored by the Global Studies Institute and the Class of 1962 Student Enrichment Fund.
He spent 26 years in elective office, Danforth said, and he has never seen the tenor as bad as it is now. But it does have some historic precedent. The Jefferson and Adams election used “propaganda rags” to spread rumors. The difference today is the amount of communication.
“It is relentless. There is no way to get away from it,” Danforth said. “It’s 24/7. It’s invasive. It’s in our living rooms and on our smartphones.”
And what surprised him was that this political tone did not end on Nov. 6. “It seems people won’t let go of this election.” There is a school in St. Louis that has been “torn up by the election.” With “ugly, ugly stuff” being said and written, it just seems this political tone continues to “more intense, more long-lasting.”
Danforth has personal experience. A protégé, Tom Schweich, committed suicide shortly after announcing he was running for the Republican nomination for governor in Missouri. “A whiff of anti-Semitism” and comments about his physical appearance quickly came out. While the saying about sticks and stones ends with “words can never harm me,” Danforth said, “they do. They caused a man’s death. Words count.”
That is why “there needs to be a public response to the state of politics,” he said. Politicians do polling and hold focus groups to find out what people think so they “can tell us what we want to hear. They think we are hateful. We have to look in the mirror. What kind of message are we giving them?”
If Americans what a different standard of politics, then “we need to start right now,” he said. “We are still one family, even with all our differences.”
Danforth, who also served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush and is an ordained Episcopal priest, said people should read the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, delivered in March 1865. As the Civil War, the nation’s bloodiest and deadliest war ever, was coming to an end, Lincoln said it was time to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Regardless of your politics, there comes a time when you must be able to work with the other side, Danforth said. “You must go up to the other person and say ‘I am your friend.’”