At the height of the electioneering season, in the cafeteria of my daughter’s school in East San Jose, something remarkable transpired: two people running for the same political office were kind to one another.
The setting was a candidates’ forum for those seeking seats on the board of the Alum Rock Unified School District. Most of the voters in the school district speak Spanish and all but one of the candidates were able to present themselves to the voters bilingually—a significant political advantage in my neighborhood—however, when it came time for her to speak, the one monolingualistically challenged candidate (who will get my vote because she is a retired school teacher and a member of my church) asked for translation help from the candidate to her right. Without hesitation, the bilingual candidate (who has earned my admiration but not my vote) rendered a faithful translation of his opponent’s platform.
In one candidate’s act of trust and in another candidate’s willing and faithful translation, I saw political kindness.
This is a rare thing. Most American political discourse favors rancor and the defamation of character over kindness. The conventional wisdom is that American voters are swayed by soundbyte-sized mudballs, slung low and inside, more Karl Rove and less Mother Theresa.
Take, for example, the response to John Kerry’s recent politically incorrect suggestion that students at Pasadena City College take advantage of the benefits of a good education, lest they be sent to Iraq. The statement lacked political kindness, as did the Republican response to it. The President and his fellow partisans were quick to accuse Kerry of causing offense to America’s men and women in uniform. The irony, of course, is that no one among the ranks of America’s military would have known to be offended if the Republicans had not responded with the unkindness of advertising Kerry’s gaff for political gain. The result of such unkindness was that John Kerry had to discontinue stumping for fellow Democrats.
I wonder what would happen if American voters decided to reward kindness with votes. Perhaps a greater measure of political kindness would free candidates to be more candid with the public. If they didn’t need to worry that every rhetorical miscue would have a detrimental outcome in the polls, perhaps candidates could risk a larger measure of transparency.
With kindness in the political arena candidates might present themselves as they are and not as they presume voters want them to be, which, in turn would allow voters to make better informed decisions in the voting both.
But kindness isn’t just a political virtue, kindness is a religious value. St. Paul, writing to the Galatian Christians, counted kindness among the “fruit of the Spirit,” marking a life that is truly spiritual. Every other significant religious tradition places kindness on the top shelf of its moral imperatives, but the politicians seeking the votes of religious Americans seem largely to have forgotten kindness. The religious values that get most traction in our public discourse have to do with sexuality—it’s telling that Ted Haggard, the recently disgraced president of the National Association of Evangelicals, found it easier to admit to buying drugs than to own up to being gay. With so narrow a religious vision, it is no wonder that our politicians go on being unkind.
When I vote tomorrow, I’m going to keep kindness in mind. I will be informed when I go to the polls. I’ll not vote for anyone whose policies I cannot countenance, but I’m beginning to think that my dissatisfaction with the current state of the American body politic may not be limited to the fact that politicians with whom I disagree control all three branches of the federal government and the executive branch of my own Golden State. A lack of political kindness surely plays a part as well, and unkindness knows no political affiliation.