How do we break free from the misguided influence of the self-serving media and politicians?

Media and politicians often distract us with rhetoric designed to get an emotional reaction. Rather than fiery rhetoric, we need thoughtful policy discussions to help us understand the complexities of issues and to drive us toward a healthier society and a more sustainable economy. My goal with this article is to help readers identify “political rhetoric,” which divides us, versus “policy ideas,” which unite us. My comments are focused on understanding the nuance between the two, so as Republicans we don’t get distracted with division, which hinders our opportunity to advance conservative principles.

A few years ago, I was hosting a town hall meeting as a state senator when I learned an important lesson which helped me distinguish political rhetoric from policy discussions. I regularly share this lesson with young leaders. I hope it helps you as you work to find a healthy way to discuss policy issues with family and friends.

That town hall was roughly split 60-40 between Republicans and Democrats with ~40 people in attendance. The evening was just beginning, but the mood had taken on an air of division. Attitudes were cordial, yet there was an undeniable sense that some people were determined to make the night confrontational—the type of political discourse which is heated yet empty.

The “Border Wall” was particularly contentious at that time. With that backdrop, I was asked my position on immigration. Many Republican and Democratic politicians were using the “Wall debate” to rally supporters. With my home state of Illinois in disarray, I felt I could not spend time on a topic where I could have little influence. I hoped to move along to another topic as politely as possible when a woman from the back of the room spoke up. She was determined to share her thoughts on the matter. Firmly taking command of the floor, she recounted her journey to becoming a naturalized citizen through the U.S. immigration system.

“I want to talk about immigration!!! I am a legal immigrant and I want to set the record straight,” she began.

I let her run with it. I’m glad I did.

For five to ten minutes, she powerfully commanded the floor and spoke from experience and with authority on various aspects of the U.S. immigration system. She confidently explained that the system was just and accessible. Her knowledge was obvious, and no one challenged her opinion. As I listened, it became apparent to me that on our national stage the issue had become intentionally and unnecessarily a divisive issue. Immigrants need level-headed politicians who don’t consider such topics for their personal benefit (buying votes). Our leaders must be expected to set aside personal interests and focus where there is the greatest likelihood of coming to a solid conclusion. She reminded me of the meat of “policy ideas,” which had become hidden beneath emotionally charged “political rhetoric.”

The distinction seemed simple enough. My question became: What is keeping us from achieving sound policy without today’s angst?

It was clear: This woman was discussing “logical immigration policy” not “emotional immigration politics.” Policy seeks to find solutions. Politics desires to get people elected.

I felt a moment of internal division, as I was both encouraged by her logical thoughts yet simultaneously discouraged about our emotional political environment, which was (and is) tearing our communities apart.

As she spoke, I was initially thinking of the fastest way to wrap up the topic and move on to issues which were more pressing to the State of Illinois at the time. Instead, when she finished, I decided to take a risk and go off script. I seized the opportunity to highlight what she had made obvious to me. I asked everyone in the room a few questions to highlight what was just observed but the weight of which had not been grasped. Here are the questions I asked that night:

  1. Many of you would say someone who is not paying into our social system should not get the benefit of our social system. But how many of you believe that a person who is not yet a citizen should be able to be involved in our social programs if they are paying into those social programs? The response—100% in agreement.
  2. I am guessing we all agree we should never offer a pathway of citizenship to bad actors, but many of our immigrants come out of poverty and are good people who work hard with a hope of experiencing the American dream. How many of you agree that we should provide good actors a pathway to citizenship, although it may be longer than our new friend who followed a legal process and became a citizen? The response—100% in agreement.
  3. Finally, how many of you believe we must have some sort of control over our borders? The answer again—100% in agreement.

Think about this—I had just presented three immigration policy issues to a politically divided room and had nothing but nodding heads. How could that be?

I drew this conclusion with the attendees:

“You all just observed a presentation on immigration policy followed by three immigration policy questions. You unanimously agreed on immigration policy. That is the good news. Here is the bad news—if I would have asked how you felt about the ‘Border Wall,’ within minutes someone would have been insulting someone else, and the room would have been up for grabs. The Border Wall is used as a politically emotional issue by both sides. It is being used to increase viewership and get politicians elected. My three questions were logical and policy-focused with a goal of solving an emotional issue not causing an emotional reaction.”

My final question to the attendees: “What is the real problem?” Their responses were quick and succinct; they blamed the media and politicians.

I took another risk and responded, “No, the problem is you. You, because you allow the media to make money off of presenting the emotional side of political issues. You vote for politicians presenting the same emotional arguments.” This was not what the audience expected to hear. My intention was to make a point, and our open conversation had built the trust necessary for us to be honest about problems and solutions.

I understand the politicians and media are also to blame, but I was not going to change anything at Fox or MSNBC during my one hour in rural Illinois. My audience—Republicans and Democrats—cared about a better future and hopefully remember that night as well as I do. It was a special learning experience about each of us as voters sorting through the information we are consuming.

We must become smart enough to refuse to follow media and politicians down paths that are good for them but bad for society. We are willing to be on mass media and social media platforms that energize us but do us a tremendous disservice. It is time for that to change.

So, what do we do?

First, it is essential for each of us to begin by forcing ourselves to distinguish between “politics” and “policy.” The former draws us into contention. The latter leads us to a unified society.

*Take time to do your own research when studying an issue.

*Know the facts when voicing your educated opinion to those around you.

*Be prepared to confidently and calmly share your informed opinions with others, but only after listening without interruption. Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand before trying to be understood.” The best salespeople know the two magic words in sales are “shut up.” When trying to convince, never interrupt and always listen more than you speak. Your mother said it first, “There is a reason we have two ears, and only one mouth.”

I believe Republicans have the right policy solutions, but our solutions are more complex and take a deeper explanation than short-term band aids recommended by others. We must be willing to listen to different perspectives and then explain our positions in a logical and fact-based manner. I believe we are often too quiet or too angry. We do not need to moderate our positions, but we do have to moderate our style. We have the potential to reclaim our communities, but we must be knowledgeable, patient and kind. As a friend of mine stated, “Be graciously aggressive and tactfully persistent.”

Second, our goal of this ongoing column is to provide you space to learn the deeper, more complex aspects of local policy issues. I am passionate about educating voters. As a result, I have asked Paul Pribaz, the chairperson of our Communications Committee, to put together a team to regularly educate local voters. For the next twenty-six editions of our newsletter, we have scheduled our local leaders as guest writers on issues relevant to you and to their elected office. The next three articles will be from our Republican City Council candidates, John Kelly, Zach Oyler, and Kiran Velpula. We believe it is the job of “Leaders to Educate Voters.” Hence, the name.

We hope you enjoy the next twenty-six editions of our newsletter. You will get to know your elected officials better, and you will find they are accessible to help you understand issues facing our community. If you want to go further by discussing this or other local topics, my cell is 309-360-4779. Call anytime, and I will try to help you or direct you to the right people.

The content of this article is not necessarily the opinion of the Peoria County Republican Central Committee (PCRCC).

Call any member of our “Leaders Educate Voters” team with your thoughts and questions:

Editor, Ann Bare—309-360-1610
Assistant Editor, Lauren Malmberg—309-303-8636
Editorial Board Member, Royce Hood—239-273-6038
PCRCC Communications Chairman, Paul Pribaz—312-543-8154
PCRCC Chairman, Chuck Weaver—309-360-4779

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