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Though this column will not be published until Nov. 8, I am writing it on Oct. 28, well before the Nov. 2 election. At this point, the political pundits all say the election is too close to callso I do not have a clue as to who will be victorious. However, the point I hope to make is not dependent upon who wins or loses, but rather what happens after the decision has been made. And so my remarks are directed to all parties and their constituents.

The “right” to dissent is precious, but dissent itself is not. Frequently, there is a failure to make a proper distinction between these 2 propositions. Burning a school down or bombing a building are clearly inappropriate ways to express dissent and are examples of how extremists abuse a precious right. But there are subtler and more widespread abuses that, in the aggregate, may be even more troublesome to a free society.

The right to dissent arises when a society or an organization delegates certain individuals to make decisions on its behalf. This is so because if everyone made every decision affecting their life there would be no one else to hold accountable. In such a representative form of government, those elected to make decisions must act in the best interest of all, even though there may be those who disagree. Elected persons must, therefore, expect dissent, because it is a “right” of those who disagree. Our representatives are under a heavy responsibility to be fair and objective in their deliberations and decisions.

However, is it not also true that those who dissent are under a similar obligation? Are dissidents expected to air only their own parochial interests, or are they, like those in office, required to look at the entire picture before framing their own expressions of disagreement? I believe that if they wish to be taken seriously, those who dissent are required, at the very least, to give the same diligence to fact and detail as the decision-makers. Moreover, at some point they should come to grips with the question of the common good and when their own interest must give way to it.

Understanding this distinction, I believe, has taken on added significance in our current election process. In my lifetime, I do not recall a presidential election filled with so much rancor and bitterness. I am not comforted by the publishing of recent articles relating how underhanded the politics were in some of the elections in the early 19th century. The hope always is that we are moving forward in our decision-making process rather than reverting to the less civilized behavior of some of our forefathers. As I have listened to some of todays rhetoric, I am reminded of the speaker, who in the margins of his speech, had written, “weak pointyell like hell.”

At risk in our election is an important issue that is seldom if ever objectively discussed. I refer to the ability to govern effectively in an atmosphere permeated by anger. That our country is divided is not debatableone can see it everywhere. Reasons for the division can, of course, be debated ad nauseambut for what purpose? The likely result of such activity is more division. Unity may be an elusive goal, but that does not mean that we should not strive for it.

Unity, I believe, should be an objective of leaders at all levelsnot just those at the top. National unity cannot be achieved by a single political party; rather there has to be give and take by all parties. The only example that comes to mind where unity is forced by a single party is a “shotgun wedding” and politics works best when such tactics are avoided.

I may sound na?ve to those who believe that politics is inherently a dirty game and that not much is likely to change regardless of the outcome of the current election. However, my years in Washington did teach me a few things. The lawmakers who most often looked for and found common ground were the most effective in moving forward. The most successful lobbyists were those who always left something on the table for the opposition. Extreme groups pulling both right and left may have broadened the center, but they seldom got their way entirely. Mutual respect is hard currency in hammering out compromises that work, but it is often lost when anger prevails.

I am a strong supporter of the right to dissent, for without it representative government could not long function. But like free speech, it is a right that needs to be exercised with good stewardship. For example, when the election is over, it should be over, and we come together to chart the best for our own future, working on common ground. If the losers primary objective becomes an obsession to destroy the victor, then effective government will be the real victim.

The best way to exercise the right to dissent is to demonstrate that by force of ideas and deeds you can produce a better way of life for all. However, if dissent is nothing more than a way to regain power by destroying others, then that is evidence that you have no ideas for progress.

Politics can change, but only if we demand it. Its time to say, “Enough already, its time for sanitynot acrimony.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, November 4, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.