February 18, 2023 — Differences of opinion are inherent to democracy. We all bring different life experiences, values and faiths into the voting booth. And we count on elected officials to bridge these differences on behalf of the common good.
Public opinion research suggests a vast majority of Americans agree that civility is important to good governance. In a November 2022 poll, the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service found that:
- More than eight out of ten Americans agree with the values of compromise, respect, and civility.
- Ninety-five percent believe respect for one another is the first step to having a government that works.
- Ninety-two percent agree that civility is the language of respect.
Yet these values are far from the norm in this spring’s mayoral campaign. Negative messaging is intensifying through ads on TV, online, or the mail, often funded by anonymous political action committees. These ads make dire warnings about the opposition – without evidence supporting their claims, or even clarity about who is making these statements.
At The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, we believe that civility, honesty and respect are fundamental to our work of building a better community. We work with donors and nonprofit organizations of all types, united in the belief that we are stronger and more effective when we work together.
That’s why we are calling on all hopefuls for public office in Northeast Florida, now and in the future, to uphold the principles of civility during their campaigns, committing to the following practices:
- Avoiding labels, generalizations and stereotypes.
- Giving voters a fair understanding of their qualifications, issues and ideas, avoiding personal attacks and misrepresentations of their opponents’ positions.
- Honoring truth, and eschewing falsehoods, rumor and innuendo through unsubstantiated sources.
- Addressing real issues of importance to the constituency and proposing solutions.
- Showing respect for opponents’ views even as they disagree.
- Participating constructively in at least one legitimate forum or debate with their opponents, to aid voters’ understanding, and listening as well as speaking during public conversations.
- Setting an example of civility across their campaigns and not allowing others operating on their behalf to compromise these commitments. While political action committees operate independently of individual candidates’ campaigns, candidates can publicly repudiate any transgressions of this standard of civility.
- Honoring the Golden Rule, and campaigning the way they hope their opponents would.
- Gracefully accepting the decision of the voters.
Sadly, when incivility takes root, it is hard to stop. Each candidate who fails to uphold these principles lowers the bar for everyone, igniting a vicious cycle. Civility can only work if all the candidates agree to do it together, through a pledge to each other and the voters.
The polling suggests it might even be popular with voters.
Nina Waters is the President of The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, Florida’s oldest and largest community foundation, which works to stimulate philanthropy to build a better community. This column originally appeared in the Florida Times-Union on February 18, 2023.