CHAPEL HILL — Nearly a decade ago, former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff argued in The New York Times that democracy can only thrive when its practitioners respect the difference between adversaries and enemies. “An adversary is someone you want to defeat,” he wrote. “An enemy is someone you have to destroy.”
Ignatieff was drawing on personal experience. He spent three years as leader of the Liberal Party in a Canadian Parliament controlled by the Conservatives. Two other politicians with relevant experience, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, embraced Ignatieff’s distinction during a recent joint appearance in Chapel Hill.
Two years ago, they squared off in one of the most expensive Senate races in American history. Tillis, the incumbent Republican and former speaker of the North Carolina House, ended up defeating Cunningham, an attorney who in addition to serving a term in the state senate is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. The margin of victory was, however, rather small: 48.69% to 46.94%.
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Most of the TV spots in the 2020 Senate race came from independent-expenditure (IE) groups, not the campaigns themselves. As they noted during their conversation, which was hosted by the UNC Center for Public Discourse, Cunningham and Tillis couldn’t by law exercise any control over what those IE groups said or did over the course of the race. What the candidates could control were their own words and actions, and how they interacted with each other.
At their broadcast debates, for example, the two strove to stick to substantive issues when on camera and exchanged playful banter during commercial breaks. After the election, their cordiality turned into something more. The two met for breakfast at a popular Raleigh restaurant. Then Tillis called Cunningham for advice on military matters. Through conversation, a friendship developed. Later, they began talking about it in public.
Notice that I didn’t call it an unlikely friendship. Contrary to what our toxic media climate might lead you to believe, many people in public life get along pretty well with their ideological opponents. When the North Carolina General Assembly convenes for its 2023 session, you won’t find groups of lawmakers prancing through the halls like hostile gangs from West Side Story, singing lines like “When you’re a Dem, you’re a Dem to the tee/We are out to lay waste to the whole GOP!”
To say real-life legislating and lobbying bear little resemblance to the wrestling-match caricatures you find on cable news or social media is not to say political disagreements are all for show. They’re very real. Tillis and Cunningham don’t see eye-to-eye on the federal budget, gun control, climate change and a host of other issues. They still debate them, publicly and privately. What they don’t do — what all of us should try not to do — is accuse the other of being stupid, dishonest or evil.
“You see, a lot of behavior driven by leaders is a reaction to something that has surfaced on social media,” Tillis said at the Chapel Hill event. “I just ask people that before you press send, or tweet or snap, ask yourself: would you sit in front of a room like this and say the same sort of thing, with the same sort of tone?”
To encourage our leaders to model better behavior is precisely why former state Sen. Leslie Winner and I founded Duke University’s North Carolina Leadership Forum in 2015. Our program brings together some three dozen leaders at a time — from politics, business and nonprofit groups — to practice constructive engagement across political difference.
One tool for building relationships is to share personal stories about how we come to believe what we believe. Another is the lubricant of laughter. Asked at the UNC event about the much-ridiculed tweet of him in a pristine “barbecue” apron standing next to a gas grill, Cunningham raised his hands in mock surrender. “Bless my out-of-state staff,” he said apologetically.
“Bless your out-of-state staff!” Tillis said appreciatively.