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Julie Doll: Candidates can do better, but so can voters

Julie Doll
Special to Gannett Kansas
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.

Civility in politics is now sufficiently rare that when Utah’s gubernatorial candidates appeared in a joint ad to urge Republicans and Democrats to treat one another with respect, it was considered news from coast to coast.

Republican Spencer Cox has a big lead over Democrat Chris Peterson, and Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in 40 years. Those dynamics may make it easier for both men to show grace and class.

Still, we should applaud.

Politics don’t have to be a toxic brew of anger and hate. It’s just easier — and often more effective — to take the low road.

At some point this fall, someone on Twitter shared video of the 1996 debate between vice presidential candidates Jack Kemp and Al Gore. In the video, Kemp says he and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole did not view Gore and President Bill Clinton as their enemy, but as opponents.

Kemp said all four candidates had the opportunity to show the nation and the world how a great democracy could operate with civility, respect, decency and integrity.

Certainly, Dole, Kemp, Gore and Clinton didn’t always succeed in meeting Kemp’s high standard.

As a journalist who sometimes covered Dole when he was a U.S. senator, I can verify that his quips could be dipped in vitriol and his rhetoric injected with anger. He could be unfair, and during the primaries of 1996, at least one opponent accused him of political smears.

Yet, compared to today’s lies and smears, his behavior seems almost bland.

It’s easy to understand why politics have grown more dishonest and mean.

Negative politicking works. It’s why you get five nasty attack fliers in your mail for every one with a positive message.

And in other arenas, businesses have figured out how to make money by feeding voters’ anger, fear and hate.

Social media and other online ventures, for example, make money by engaging you: getting you to click on things and spend more time on their site. This is true of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and so on.

They know what kind of content gets your attention because they continuously collect data about your online activities and interactions. They know what has engaged you in the past. And they know many of us pay attention to sensational and provocative content that aligns with our interests and biases.

So they feed us more of that stuff.

Cable TV and talk radio also have figured out that they get bigger audiences with nasty smears and angry attacks.

All this anger and hate don’t improve the quality of your life — or the quality of our national discourse.

That’s why we should take a cue from Utah. Let’s vow that we’ll do better.

We won’t listen to those who try to frighten and anger us with unsupported claims that warn of doom if we elect their opponents.

When online, we won’t engage with those who inflame, provoke and insult. We will block, ignore or unfriend. We won’t feed the beasts.

We won’t reward politicians who base their campaigns on smearing their opponents.

When we come across sensationalist gossip and dubious “news,” we’ll ensure that it’s from reliable sources before spreading it further.

Taking the higher road will undoubtedly improve the journey.

The alternative is to stay on the road that deteriorates more each day, and which subjects us to ever more bumps, mud, rocks and ruts.

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.