A few weeks ago I ran into former Colorado Speaker of the House Frank McNulty at a fundraiser for Foster Together Colorado. As we talked, McNulty joked, “I’m really outraged with all the outrage in politics today!”
His good-humored jest came back to me this week when I read about former President Barak Obama denouncing “call-out culture,” “cancel culture” and “wokeness” during a summit for his foundation.
Obama explained, “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff … You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
A big reason I connected McNulty’s comments with Obama’s so quickly is due to the admiration I hold for both. But in McNulty’s case, I also have experience with his ability to disagree vehemently without holding a grudge or trying to eradicate his opponents.
In 2012, I clashed with McNulty in a very public way over civil union legislation while he was still the Speaker of the House. The debate between supporters and opponents lead to the most memorable legislative session end in recent history, alternately called “anarchy” or “chaos” in news reports.
I would have understood if McNulty had never wanted to speak with me again. Though we had been staunch allies in other instances – most notably the redrawing of state legislative lines the year before – I had been a not insignificant figure in the lead up to that chaotic last day.
To McNulty’s credit, he never once let that disagreement change our personal relationship. He never lambasted me or froze me out of meetings. He didn’t lend his name to an attack-mailer, or even endorse my opponent, when I ran for state Senate in 2014. And today we still work together on projects together.
I haven’t brought it up directly in conversation, but I have always been grateful to McNulty for his grace and civility.
To me, that type of civility and grace formed the central point Obama wanted to get across. Coming from a man who exudes both qualities and headed into what promises to be a brutal election year, it’s a message we could all benefit from learning, re-learning and emulating.
Unfortunately I fear much of it will fall on deaf ears. I’ve certainly seem people from both sides of the spectrum unable and unwilling to adopt such an approach. In my opinion, the Colorado recall elections were based on rage and a desire to inflict pain by a few individuals than a well-planned strategic initiative or substantive debate.
I’ve heard from friends on the left that the same problem plagues the Democratic Party, obviously leading people like Obama to speak out. As Obama pointed out during his speech, the vitriol is most virulent within social media communities where commentators feed off one another.
My own personal experience with several far-left leaning activists bears that out. In at least one occasion I disagreed with the uncivil nature of an activist’s post on Twitter and immediately became subject to a cascade of derogatory posts and accusations. I know I shouldn’t have expected more from Twitter, the epicenter of social media derision and scorn, but it nonetheless left me shaking my head.
Sadly, I’m not sure much of America is ready to let go of their outrage. When I brought up Obama’s comments in response to a very liberal friend’s Facebook post, he dismissed Obama as “hardly a model for social progressivism.”
I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to demonstrate Obama’s point even if the lesson was lost on my friend.
The next year will assuredly dial up anger and outrage with each day closer we come to the election. It would behoove us to take a step back and learn lessons from leaders like McNulty and Obama. If not we may find ourselves without anything but outrage with each other in the future.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq