Take it from a former Kansas congressman, U.S. ag secretary — what the world needs now is humor

Will Smith, Dan Glickman and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York during a Motion Picture Association symposium in 2003. Smith spoke about the impact of the movies on American culture. (Submitted)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Former congressman and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman’s book “Laughing at Myself” is out this month from the University Press of Kansas.

Now that all adults are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, we should inject our political leaders with a healthy dose of authentic, self-deprecating humor, so they can make themselves the butt of their jokes instead of using them to add more poison to the American body politic. Seriously, when was the last time you heard a politician in Congress making fun of him or herself?

According to Thomas Ford, a psychologist at Western Carolina University and editor-in-chief of HUMOR: The International Journal of Humor Research, “Non-aggressive forms of humor have a real bonding effect. There’s a special connection we make with one another when we laugh with one another.”

Throughout American history, we’ve seen our leaders use humor to appease “warring” parties and bring people together — to get things done and make America a better, more humane country. Many of our impactful leaders of the past, from Lincoln to FDR to Kennedy and Reagan, were able to use the power of humor, especially at their own expense, to persuade, persevere and ultimately make valuable progress for everyone.

If you can laugh at yourself and encourage others to do the same, people will like you, which means you can more easily inspire others to follow. A friendly sense of humor can make people feel closer to each other, a first step toward compromise — and getting things done.

Positive humor relieves stress while negative humor increases it. Jokes at someone’s expense tend to keep those people entrenched in their polarizing views, especially when they think they are being attacked for their values or policy positions. Tacit approval of negative humor on both sides of the political spectrum makes people less willing to embrace compromise.

Jill Suttie, a doctor of psychology and staff writer at Greater Good, says that “humor could be used to heal our political divide rather than encourage it.” This is true for conservatives and liberals, as both have a choice to make: Do they stay in their silos and use negative humor to take potshots at each other, or do they opt to look in the mirror, make fun of themselves for a change, and extend an olive branch to their “friends across the aisle” and get things done. Because isn’t that the point of being in Congress — to get things done?

Our current political leadership, at all levels of government, is missing an opportunity to bring people together and become more relatable to voters. Where is the spirit of Mark Twain and Will Rogers when we need them? We are living in an age of mean-spirited discourse (if you can call it that) and relentless vitriol, which may score points for TV pundits but does nothing to create progress. In fact, it’s getting us nowhere fast.

As a nine-term congressman from Kansas, secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, and chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, I faced thorny challenges on a regular basis. Humor, especially at my own expense, was often my best way to communicate and create mutual understanding and became my chosen method to get things done. If others could follow my example, it would benefit the country.

Of course, I am not so naïve to think that humor is a cure-all by itself, and I agree that hard-charging rhetoric is sometimes justified during political battles. But humor can keep these conflicts from becoming endless wars, which just might save our democracy in the process.

I’m not suggesting that politicians become stand-up comedians. God help us. But folks could surely lighten up. Humor can puncture pomposity, defuse tense situations, attract allies, and bring focus to serious issues. It is essential to disarming colleagues and to get things done.

Incidentally, “Laughing at Myself” is the title of my new memoir, out this month from the University Press of Kansas.

Life is about building bridges between rivals, not making permanent enemies, and if we are ever going to achieve fairness and equality, humor can help us get there.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of Kansas’s favorite sons, expressed this best.

“A sense of humor is part of leadership,” he said, “of getting along with people; of getting things done.”

Dan Glickman celebrates his book release at two virtual events this month: 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 8, at Wichita’s Watermark Books & Café, and 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 16 at Lawrence’s Raven Book Store.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.