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Donna Brazile: Blank slate, new beginning

The past year, 2012, had a lot of “big ticket” events. Several were scheduled beforehand: the election, in which more than $2 billion were spent in the presidential race alone, the Olympics, a leap year, and a few others that will make their way into the inevitable year-end reviews. There were also, unfortunately, several unscheduled events that grabbed all the headlines: the massacres in Aurora and Newtown, and the destructive hurricanes Sandy and Isaac.

Now 2013 is one of those odd years, as a colleague said — no pun intended — when there are no major, defining events scheduled. So maybe we should focus on some of the major issues facing us — or at least start discussing them before a major distraction intrudes. And it will. Via man or nature, something will happen that demands immediate attention and diverts us from fundamental issues. At least for a while.

First, as I see it, we need to keep in perspective what matters in life. Man or Nature: Hurricane Sandy or Sandy Hook Elementary. There’s more than irony in the coincidence of names. “Sandy” is short for Alexander, and means “defender of man.” In times of crisis, whether caused by man or nature, we come together to defend each other. Why must we wait? If we come together and defend, support and encourage each other, perhaps we can avoid or avert a crisis or two.

Speaking of Alexander reminds me of the story of the Gordian Knot. It could not be unraveled, so Alexander sliced it in half with his sword. We may need such an approach to slice through the partisan gridlock in Congress, which has increased geometrically, perhaps exponentially, since 1994.

How we talk to each other matters, and we have to pay attention to the words we use. We have to reclaim rhetorical civility. “Please” and “thank you” belong at the dinner table, in the hardware store and in the halls of Congress.

The language of Washington may not be more “over the top” than ever before — look up what the followers of Jefferson and Adams called each candidate — but it has become more fine-tuned. Politicians have always chosen words that would ignite the people, stir their hearts and goad their actions. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears,” is one famous example.

But since the 2004 presidential campaign, partisan political strategists have employed behavioral science and a structured understanding of rhetoric and language to shape strategy and speech. The language of deceit, against which George Orwell warned, has become standard practice for politicians, who have learned to sound moderate while shoving unpopular policies through Congress. Not only the Democratic and Republican parties, but also powerful private lobbies such as the National Rifle Association maintain huge databanks of information about voters. They can number-crunch seemingly obscure items to discern personal habits and religious preferences. From this, they manipulate the messages we receive.

The poet Alexander Pope wrote, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense,” but emotional words slide past our critical reasoning and slither into the seat of our feelings. Elected officials and their handlers know this, and know which loaded words will elicit a particular response. Code words, triggers and dog whistles substitute for dialogue, debate and community.

But we remain “We the People.” We can reclaim the conversation. We can still talk to each other. We can do more than that. We can listen to each other.

The lesson from the two Sandy’s is the same: We must build community, neighbor helping neighbor, respecting one another, working together for the common good. We can only do that if we change our tone — or rather, demand our would-be leaders change their tone. We need to insist they behave themselves rhetorically.

We need to tell the politicians and pundits: Don’t twist words and don’t hide behind provocative phrases. Find ways to say “yes,” instead of another way to say “no.” Stick to the simple words, not jabberwocky.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.