America is a nation divided by politics. Left- and right-wing talking points dominate the discourse, drowning out any moderate voice and hope for common ground.
The Capitol riots point to the perils of partisanship run amok, but the toxicity of today’s politics does not begin or end in Washington, D.C. Our public discourse was toxic long before pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol grounds and crossed a red line, and it remains toxic today. We must do better.
Ironically, Americans have long agreed on this point. In 2019, about nine in 10 Americans expressed frustration with “uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians,” with almost as many urging their political leaders to pursue “compromise and common ground.” Yet more than 80 percent of Americans claimed to be “tired of leaders compromising my values and ideals,” backing politicians “who will stand up to the other side.”
This is America in a nutshell: I support compromise, as long as I’m right in the end. You believe in common ground, as long as I’m on your turf.
How do we rise above our petty squabbles? Here is one place to start: Heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr. His holiday may have come and gone, but the enduring message of the man can never be relegated to the proverbial back burner. Americans need to apply King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech to the political discussions and disagreements of the day.
Of course, applying King’s message is impossible without watching, listening, or reading it. Go back to the source material. Too often, we perceive the King message through second-hand eyes and not from firsthand experience. Here are five passages and key takeaways from the “I Have a Dream” speech that still matter in 2021:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”
To praise Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most beloved presidents, should not be noteworthy, but a longtime Democratic voter heaping praise on a Republican president is quite remarkable in today’s context—especially when that Democrat was the face of the Civil Rights Movement. In truth, King saw President Lincoln as an American first and foremost, not as a Republican. He assessed the president based on his specific actions, not party affiliation.
Can you imagine a Black Lives Matter activist commending a Republican president? Or a pro-Trump supporter starting off a speech for hundreds of thousands of people by thanking President Biden?
How about in your own life? When was the last time you had an extended, but respectful, conversation with the “other side”?
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
Despite his personal flaws, King’s legacy remains overwhelmingly positive for one reason: He protested in good faith, fighting racial inequality with the power of his perspectives, not the force of his fists. Even when tempted with a more aggressive form of activism, King urged his followers to remain good citizens. In the process, he ensured that his vision of racial harmony received the utmost attention from the general public, rather than random acts of violence resulting from reckless rhetoric. King’s peaceful protests forced Americans to discuss and debate his ideas on their merits, unsullied by distractions. All the while, he openly courted white Americans to join his cause, extending the olive branch that is necessary for positive change.
On the day of the Capitol riots, President Trump did not follow King’s blueprint, opting instead to ratchet up the tension and rile up his supporters. Perhaps, if he had toned down the heated rhetoric, the Capitol riots could have been avoided. Similarly, anti-Trump Democrats have often used inflammatory language to scapegoat Republican voters, further fanning the flames of political polarization.
Both sides are complicit. Both sides have failed to live up to King’s lofty standard.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
What more is there to say? If the United States is truly a melting pot, character-based judgement is the most necessary ingredient. The American experiment cannot succeed if we judge ourselves and others based on group identity, such as color or creed. This is not to say that immutable characteristics are irrelevant; their importance just pales in comparison to our decisions.
The American experiment can only succeed if we all—collectively—recognize that Democrats and Republicans are human beings, who must be respectful and be treated with that same respect. King could have fallen for the trap of identity politics, but he did not. This cannot be overstated: A man who had every reason to be skeptical of the “other” still advocated for the equal treatment of all people. Democrat or Republican, liberal activist or conservative business owner, we must put the “civil” back into civil discourse.
We can blame politicians for our problems, but not without bearing individual responsibility. We all need to make our beds and clean our rooms before going out in the world.
Every contribution to the cause of civility matters. You or I may never rally hundreds of thousands of people to the Lincoln Memorial, but we can all do our part to see the King legacy live on. Let’s act accordingly.