By Tom Ehrich

Americans will always disagree — about everything, from the role of government to tastes in music, from economic principles to hemlines, from how justice can be achieved to city vs. small town.

Our strength as a nation is that we embrace disagreement, give it free voice, and, at our best moments, find ways forward that serve the common good, not just one side of a debate.

Our weakness and ugliness happen when fear stalks the public square and we shout down disagreement, declare one side virtuous and the other evil, and denounce compromise as weak and the wise as dangerous.

Worst of all are those times when would-be leaders promote fear and turn a frightened people against each other. This is demagoguery, and it happens especially when times are tough.

We inhabit tough times today, and our political landscape is dominated by fear-mongering and scapegoating. Candidates take increasingly extreme positions. They declare war on the “other” and promise simple solutions that benefit the few and savage the many.

I am concerned that our political process has become so toxic and dysfunctional that trustworthy and mature leaders won’t get near it.

If people are afraid — as they manifestly are — it is despicable to exploit those fears for political gain. The trustworthy leader seeks a way forward, beyond the fear, beyond the paralysis and dysfunction. That leader’s way forward might not be my preference. But the search for the common good can take more than one form.

Those who trade in fear simply make people more afraid, to the point where they will sacrifice anything, from the rights of others to their own rights, in order not to be afraid. It is simply wrong to use fear as a weapon.