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Commentary: Winning elections by dividing is bad for society

MINOT, N.D.—It's a fashionable thing, particularly in election years, to bemoan the tone of modern politics.

I understand why—the word "obnoxious" may as well have been invented to describe desperate political campaigns raining down hyperbole and opprobrium on the electorate—but to describe this as a recent development is simply inaccurate.

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, bitter political enemies at the dawn of our republic, used anonymous pamphlets and surrogates to accuse one another of sex scandals.

Famed Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero—the man responsible for the term "republic" in our modern language—was not above accusing his political rivals incest.

Even the sainted Abraham Lincoln wasn't above unseemly political stratagems. Our 16th president, perhaps having learned a lesson from his 1858 Senate campaign loss to Stephen Douglas who used booze to buy votes, secretly bought a German-language newspaper which he then used to publish flattering articles about himself to help sway immigrant voters in the 1860 election. A campaign he won by defeating, among other opponents, Stephen Douglas.

Politics have always been thus.

Yet that doesn't mean we can't find certain modern political developments troubling.

Case in point, this week the chairman of the California Democratic Party demanded a boycott of the In-N-Out Burger franchise for the grievous sin of making a relatively modest contribution to the California Republican Party.

It's one thing to deride one's political opponents, or even seek to defeat them through ethically dubious means, but to invite economic harm for supporters of the opposition simply for supporting the opposition?

That's something else. It supposes that the loyal opposition isn't merely the opposition but the enemy.

That's something far less benign than ugly rhetoric and dirty campaign tricks.

When mainstream political organizations begin treating support for the opposition as something intolerable we should worry about what comes next.

Even in the more pacific waters of North Dakota politics this trend from disagreement to outright enmity exists.

Look no further than the campaign messaging from the left and the right in our U.S. Senate race. It's one thing to hit a candidate on their voting record. It's quite another to treat that candidate, whose sins are merely ideological, as though they were a criminal.

Teddy Roosevelt once compared citizenship in a modern republic to being in an arena fighting for a worthy cause. These words, often referenced as his "in the arena" speech, used combat as a metaphor.

When politicians today reference it I'm not so sure they understand that.

The excesses of campaign season are what they are, but it seems the campaigning never really stops. We never seem to reach that point where the campaign signs are put away, the rhetoric cools, and we get to the business of governing.

I'm all for hardball politics, but when the competition is over it'd be nice if our political leaders could get down to governing again.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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