First lady Melania Trump arrives Tuesday for the anniversary event for her Be Best initiative in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Credit: Andrew Harnik | AP

It’s a rule many of us heard from our parents growing up: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

This commendable approach has never really applied to politics, nor should it. The democratic process invariably leads to disputes and disagreements, and we don’t need to substitute empty niceties for a healthy and sometimes combative exchange of substantive ideas.

That necessary debate, however, increasingly seems to have transformed from one that trades differing ideas on matters of policy and process to one that trades insults and name calling. It’s not enough to disagree with someone’s actions, opinion or ideology — that person, and not just their different ideas, must be flawed. And it’s not enough to attack them — they also need a catchy, critical nickname.

Crooked Hillary. Lyin’ Ted. Crazy Bernie. Little Marco. Cryin’ Chuck. Those are just a few of the colorful names President Donald Trump has given political foes (some of whom are now more like allies). And those nicknames often delight his base and outrage his opponents.

Political name calling in America is as old as our democracy itself, but it feels more prevalent, even inescapable, in the digital age. Trump far from invented the tactic, but he sure has weaponized it. And unfortunately, he’s not the only one diminishing our political discourse this way.

For example, a reaction to the Portland City Council’s narrow vote against a paid sick leave ordinance this week, which assigned nicknames to each of the councilors who voted against the proposal, resembled something Trump himself could have written — minus the post’s embrace of socialism.

“Good morning fearless socialists! As many of you know, Portland’s Earned Paid Sick Leave ordinance was narrowly defeated last night in Council Chambers, with Crooked Cook, Baby Vampire Costa, Word Salad Spencer, Deferential Duson, and Whitey Mavadones voting against us,” read a Facebook post by the Maine Democratic Socialists of America.

We should expect better, not just from elected officials and candidates, but from everyday citizens of all parties and ideologies. We too are responsible for the tenor and substance of political debate, and we have a choice to make: will we push back against the slide into gutter politics, or will we be part of it?

It’s a dilemma that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (“Sleepy Joe,” according to the president) seemed to be wrestling with at a recent fundraiser. According to a report from Bloomberg, Biden managed to criticize Trump’s use of nicknames at the same event where he called the commander in chief a “clown” and a “no good S.O.B.” Not exactly a consistent message.

The White House, too, seems to want to have it both ways. While the president has taken to Twitter to craft insults and innuendo in 280 characters or less, first lady Melania Trump has for the last year been working on her “Be Best” initiative that has focused in part on cyberbullying.

“I ask you again to join me in my commitment to promoting values such as encouragement, kindness, compassion, healthy living, online safety and respect in our children,” the first lady said this week at a Be Best one-year anniversary celebration, according to ABC News.

In a vacuum, those words and that effort is commendable. The president’s own behavior and political strategy, however, render “Be Best” more of an empty slogan than a meaningful reclamation of respect in America.

Make no mistake, when it comes to our national exchange of ideas, we can all be better.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...