It is hard to imagine a time in politics or society that was more divisive than what we are facing today. Cults of personality create discord, amplifying the messenger instead of the message. Moderates and common sense have been the first casualties. It seems like everything these days is about picking sides. Donald Trump. The Alt-Right. The Alt-Left. Fascists. Anti-Fascists. Democratic-Socialists. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. The list goes on and on. What they all have in common, it seems, is a stubborn inability to compromise, each believing they need to take increasingly extreme positions – each trying to outdo the other. This trend is not just happening at the national or state level, but it is infecting local politics, as well.

More disturbing (if that’s possible) is the obsession with what I call the politics of personal destruction. This is nothing other than a zero-sum game, whereby for any one person to succeed, another has to fail. There are no other possible outcomes. For every step forward, someone needs to be pushed back one step. It eliminates the possibility of collaboration and, yes, even compromise. It creates gridlock. Most importantly, though, it under serves the people we are sent here to represent. It’s worth taking a step back, sometimes, to remember that we are here to serve the people – and not ourselves. Good ideas are not a monopoly; it’s collective, belonging to everyone.

It’s worth remembering a few other things as well. First, government institutions are larger than the individuals that temporarily inhabit them. We owe the citizens a duty to hold those institutions in trust, strengthening them so that they will endure for the next generation who will occupy them and continue to serve those who have created them. So, no matter the office, if we take an oath to serve the people, we are merely custodians. We succeed those who came before us, knowing others will follow. It’s a big responsibility that, unfortunately, elected officials sometimes forget.

Which brings us to the second point: these institutions are inhabited by human beings – human beings who fail, make mistakes, and fall short of their own better nature. We must be cognizant of the fact that an individual’s failing is his or her own. We should not confuse or impute those failings with the government office they hold. That only does a disservice to our city and ourselves. There is no one among us who hasn’t failed at something in his or her life, who hasn’t tread the wrong path. And, we can and do pay for those mistakes. The institutions, though, survive. The community will pull together to overcome short-term challenges to its institutions. That is the brilliance of the system – it is more resilient and wiser than the individuals that inhabit it.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the politics of personal destruction are epitomized by one thing: personal attacks. Reasonable people can disagree. They often do. And, disagreement is a healthy thing in politics; it generates better ideas. But, reducing healthy disagreement into personal attack says more about the attacker than the target. It is just the zero-sum game being played out at an individual level. This is what we’re seeing in national politics, for sure, but it’s happening here, too. The message is being lost through all of the attacks on the messenger. Both sides of the aisle are equally to blame. They use lies, half-truths, and fake news to push their agenda, with the end goal being the personal destruction of there targeted of attacks. It only weakens our democracy by depriving it of qualified and competent leaders who going forward will not participate for fear of being attacked.

Whatever happens in the next few months, let’s remember these few points. Our community is not represented by the failings of any one individual, and our institutions are not flawed merely because flawed individuals inhabit them. We have a responsibility to ensure that our city is well represented no matter what happens. We have a responsibility to ensure that the narrative is a positive one; exemplifying the best examples our citizens have to offer. Above all, reveling in the weakness of another is not the same as being strong ourselves; we gain nothing because someone else loses everything.

Pursuing the politics of personal destruction, like all zero-sum games, ends in the same result: nothing. Mount Vernon is better than that. It always has been and always will be. So, no matter what the future holds, we will remedy any damage done by any one single leader. Whatever the future holds for our county or our city we will survive it together.

If you have any questions or comments on this topic or have other topics you’d like to see featured in a future column, e-mail me at [email protected]

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