Tag: Civil Discourse

The Importance Of Civil Discourse

Last week I became the Chair of The Sanders Institute (TSI), an initiative that grew out of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016. While as a sitting senator, Sanders cannot be involved in the work of TSI, we are committed to elevating the issues on which he based his run for the White House.

TSI’s purpose, as defined in our mission statement, is to revitalize our democracy by fostering an informed electorate and advocating progressive ideas through civil discourse. The foundation of TSI’s effort will be built on a collection of remarkable founding fellows who will provide leadership on a range of economic, environmental, racial and social justice, and foreign policy concerns. They include such distinguished scholars and activists as: Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover; Robert Reich, Stephanie Kelton, Cornel West, and Jeffery Sachs; Bill McKibben, Ben Jealous and Michael Lighty; Tulsi Gabbard and Nina Turner; and Jane O’Meara Sanders, whose idea it was to launch TSI.

Of the matters we discussed at our first board meeting, what struck me as central to our mission was a collective commitment to civil discourse. Recent events have brought home just how vital it is to focus on changing the way we debate and challenging those who use personal attacks, harsh tactics, or vulgar language in an effort to stifle opposing points of view.

During last year’s presidential contest, Americans across the partisan divide were shocked by language and antics of then-candidate Donald Trump. He demeaned his opponents; defamed vulnerable minority communities; courted and emboldened extremist groups; and sometimes even incited his followers to violence.

There were those who hoped that once taking the oath of office Trump would change, but the language he uses in his daily tweets and off-the-cuff remarks at press events demonstrate that those hopes were in vain. As a result, there is clear evidence of a frightful coarsening of our discourse and an empowering of hate groups.

Our concern, however, is not limited to what Trump has done because we are seeing worrisome signs of harsh behavior and rhetoric among liberals and progressives, as well.

Last week, Hillary Clinton released “What Happened”, her account of why she lost the 2016 election. Because she unfairly included her tough primary contest with Sanders a factor that caused her to lose, Twitter exploded with ugly charges being hurled back and forth between supporters of both candidates. It may be useful to have a discussion of why Clinton lost, but insults and unfounded accusations make the exercise counterproductive and damaging.

If anything, the 2016 primary battle involved a principled debate over key aspects of domestic and foreign policy. Sanders challenged Clinton on issues like: the roots of income inequality and economic injustice; and the need to break the stranglehold that financial elites and corporate lobbyists have on health care, trade policy, the criminal justice system, and our political process, itself. He demanded that we think big and proposed goals like: increasing the minimum wage, ending trade deals that disadvantaged American workers, providing universal health care by expanding Medicare, and creating jobs by investing in infrastructure and renewable energy. Sanders also questioned foreign policies Clinton championed like the war in Iraq and the unbalanced US support given to Israel’s continued oppression of Palestinians.

In response, Clinton scoffed at Sanders big ideas, dismissing them as unrealistic. She argued, instead, for an incremental approach to addressing these same issues. The debates were heated and became personal, at times, but never did they sink to the level that was in evidence in last week’s Twitter wars.

The accusations made by Clinton, and amplified by her backers, that Sanders had hurt her chances to win are simply not true. He not only endorsed her, he vigorously challenged his supporters to follow suit, and then proceeded to do more than three dozen campaign events on her behalf. As he observed, his contest with Clinton was over. Now the choice was between Donald Trump and her, and he was committed to do all he could to help Clinton win.

There is a lesson here for Democrats as we approach the 2018 Congressional elections. Big ideas must be advanced and debated, but Democrats must not fracture as they debate. Polarizing hostile discourse will only breed more division while, at the same time, making real debate over issues less likely.

This past week, we saw yet another display of a lack of civility and the damage it can do to advancing an important policy debate. When protesters disrupted a press conference House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, had convened to highlight the plight of young undocumented immigrants—the “Dreamers”—the tactics used by the demonstrators did more harm than good.

A few weeks ago, President Trump canceled an Obama-era program that had allowed Dreamers to secure work permits and remain in the US. Trump gave Congress six months to pass legislation to protect the 700,000 young people who had registered in the program.

Pelosi, a long-time champion of the Dreamers is supporting such an effort. Because Democrats are in the minority in Congress, they will need Republican support to pass any legislation. Pelosi, therefore, invited a group of Dreamers to tell their stories at the press event, believing that if they were known and heard, she could win support for the bill.

Her event was shattered by another group of protesting Dreamers who shouted down Pelosi and those who were to have spoken accusing them of being “sellouts” and demanding that instead of saving just the Dreamers, protection must also be secured for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. While their concerns might be understandable, their tactics were not. And instead of civil discourse, their actions created chaos and recrimination.

Of course, we must advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and an end to mass deportations. That remains our goal. But because the clock is ticking and, given Trump’s deadline, only a little over 5 months remain before the 700,000 Dreamers lose their protection. In other words, we can and must continue to elevate the perfect, while fighting now to save the good. And we must do so without attacking allies and behaving in an uncivil manner.

This is why I am so pleased to be a part of the important work of TSI. We hope to continue on the track of informing the public about critical issues, challenging Republicans and Democrats alike to think big about solutions to our most pressing problems, and doing this while engaging in civil discourse. That, we believe, is the way forward.

National Nurses United Conversation With Dr. Jane O’Meara Sanders

On Thursday September 21, Dr. Jane O’Meara Sanders (Co-founder, Fellow of The Sanders Institute) joined RoseAnn DeMoro of National Nurses United to talk about Medicare for All and the need for civil discourse.




DR. JANE O’MEARA SANDERS: I want to thank all of the nurses that are here today and around the world. You have been, forever a source of comfort and nurturing for all of your patients. I can’t thank you enough, from a personal standpoint and every single person across this room and across the country have had the experience of nurses being there to ease the pain and the stress. Beyond that, you have been an unbelievable source of progressive labor. You have made a difference. The nurses have been a beacon of leadership, doing the right thing, not settling and making incremental changes. You’re holding out a vision and holding other people accountable for it. The impact you have had has been amazing, and we will get Medicare for All thanks to you in large part. Last, but certainly not least, to the RN nurses who are going all over to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and all over – thank you. Everybody should know about the work you do.

One of the things people always ask me is how did you get into this, when did you become politically interested? Oddly enough, it started in healthcare. My dad was a teacher, and he fell and broke his hip. He was in the hospital for the better part of every year until I was 14. We just thought that was the way he was – my dad was ill, and it changed our life. My mom went to secretarial school to get anouther job. I had four brothers, the older two quit high school to support the family. My brother Benny became a blacksmith in Brooklyn. He just loved horses, my dad used to bring him to Prospect Park to ride horses when he was a little kid. He became quite well known as a trainer and came into quite a good living.

When I was 14, my dad was in the hospital again, and Benny asked the doctor to check him head to toe because there has to be an underlying problem. The doctor said the insurance wouldn’t pay for it, so we can only deal with the existing problem. Benny said, “you know I do that for my horses, and I’ll pay cash.” So he did. And they checked him out – and my dad wasn’t in the hospital for another ten years.

For me, that was my political awakening. If you had money, if you could afford to buy good insurance, you could have good health. And that to me just didn’t seem fair. So that has stuck with me forever, and my whole life I’ve been trying to do what’s fair, trying to even the playing field. And that’s why The Sanders Institute is starting. I founded The Sanders Institute with our son, Dave Driscoll, who reminds me a lot of my father and brother. He and I believe that we need to have a fair, level playing field. We launched at the People’s Summit on June 7th, and that was really successful, thank you so much, RoseAnn. The seminars that we put on there were very successful, and we are going to be increasing those across the country. We’ll talk about economics, healthcare, democracy, and we’ll be talking with our professors to determine what we should be expanding our thinking of. One of the first things we did was publish a report on Medicare for All. As a nonprofit, we can’t lobby for anything in particular, but there was no bill then. We published that report and went around to every Senate and House office and delivered them the report on Medicare for All.

We believe a vital democracy requires an informed electorate, civil discourse, and bold, progressive ideas. The mission of The Sanders Institute is to revitalize democracy by actively engaging individuals, organizations, and the media in the pursuit of progressive solutions to economic, environmental, racial, and social justice issues.

Another reason we set up the Institute is to serve as progressive counterweight to the conservative and moderate organizations that currently set the frameworks of the debate, and it’s very narrow. We’re not interested in discussing what they think is possible in today’s climate, we’re interested in if it’s right. We’re interested in creating a vision for the future and identifying the steps or leaps required to get there.

Because amid the nonstop, all-crisis-all-the-time tweet storm that is Donald J. Trump, thought itself – careful, critical, analytical thought – seems to be an endangered species.  At The Sanders Institute, we intend to counteract that. We choose to stay focused on our vision on the issues that affect people’s lives, rather than getting caught up in the scandals or interparty and intraparty squabbles.

The current administration won’t be around forever, we’re working to create more of a dialogue with the people that put him there or are fighting him now to bring people together – not to the center, but to find out why do people want what they want? We believe in civil discourse. I don’t believe that all the people that voted for this administration believe the things he espouses. We need to pay attention to the issues to bring people together on a common ground that doesn’t just say, “Okay, from the left, from the right, let’s go to the center.” That’s what you’ll hear from the media, and it’s exactly the wrong way to go about it. There is no left, there is no right, there is right and wrong. There is coming together to say government works for the people. Thank you.”