In politics, make appeals, not demands

In a 2012 retreat to Caritas aid workers, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) told those present that truth is like a precious stone: Offer it in your hand, and it draws others to you; hurl it at someone, and it causes injury.

Such important wisdom could be an important part of an examination of conscience. How often have we fallen prey to the temptation to use the beautiful truths passed down to us by the Catholic faith as a weapon against others to vindicate our (self) righteousness?

The same wisdom applies in politics. Bringing faith into the public arena requires all of us to properly balance a hunger and thirst for justice with the reality that democracy requires citizens and advocates to persuade legislators of the prudence of their proposals.

Yet, too often, because of our impatience or lack of respect for others, we make demands and hurl epithets when we should be presuming the good will of the listener and appealing to their reason, ideals and natural sense of justice. We dismiss the fact that no one was born with all the answers, and that seeing an issue from a new viewpoint takes a lot of work and, often, a change of heart.

When we ignore this reality and attack the integrity of others, we may make ourselves feel good, or appease those who look to us for leadership (and we may even be right). But most often, we build walls of resentment instead of bridges of dialogue.

Building walls around the heart

There were two concrete examples during the 2015 legislative session of the imprudence of making demands: felon voter restoration and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Though voter restoration legislation has been around for almost a decade, an extremely diverse, bi-partisan coalition galvanized around this issue in the last year and gave it strong momentum. Recognizing that Republican support would be necessary for an elections-related bill that had historically been sponsored by Democrats, the coalition took a new approach of trying to explain the issue through considerations that would be compelling for conservative and religious Republicans.

The result of presuming an open mind among all legislators, even if someone was opposed in the past, was that the bill got off to an extremely promising start with Republicans signing on as seven of the 10 Senate sponsors, along with more than a dozen House Republicans signing on to the companion bill. The Restore the Vote effort was looking to be a symbol of bi-partisan cooperation.

When things got stalled, however, and partisanship started emerging, many supporters and groups became frustrated, and their tactics reflected as much. Instead of appealing to the good will and shared values of those undecided or those who were opponents, some supporters embraced more confrontational tactics (sit-ins, shadowing legislators) and messaging, in the hope that displays of “power,” angry rhetoric, condemnations and name-calling would shame people into moving the legislation forward.

Clearly, those tactics, especially when employed by self-described people of faith, did little more than harden hearts and weaken support.  In the desire to “speak truth to power,” the legislative effort failed.

A similar fate awaited the immigrant driver’s license legislation. The legislative campaign rightly underscored the obvious road safety benefits of the proposal, both for immigrants and all Minnesotans. It advanced farther than many expected because it was a bi-partisan effort and addressed a real problem that was harming immigrants and their families.

But again, some advocates refused to actually listen to and take seriously the reasonable concerns of many legislators about ensuring that the license was used for driving privileges only. This prevented advocates from getting broader support. And when there was resistance, or when the proposal was not immediately embraced, counterproductive tactics and condemnations of racism hardened the hearts and fueled the suspicions of those on the fence, dooming the legislation.

This critique is not meant to deny that racism may have, in some cases, actually played a part in thwarting these very good bills. Nor is it to deny that some structures of sin are so bad as to warrant demands for justice or a communication to legislators that they will be held accountable for their decisions.

But as a general matter, success in the public arena occurs not when advocates demand, intimidate and insult, but when they appeal to hearts and minds.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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