Civility to many may seem a quaint notion. But, without civility, as is becoming increasingly clear, representative government falls apart.
Americans are rightly angry that their economy is a shambles, their national debt is trending skyward and Congress is unable to pass necessary spending bills. But yelling at one another and issuing threats will not improve the situation.
Rather — and yes it sounds Pollyannaish — we must be able to sit down with one another to discuss our problems and work together toward solutions.
In a speech this week to the Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program at the Washington National Cathedral, Sen. Susan Collins noted that civility in Congress has ebbed and flowed over the decades. In 1856, Democratic Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina severely beat Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his cane until he was unconscious.
“In modern times, I have not seen the degree of bitter divisiveness and excessive partisanship now found in the Senate,” the senator said. “The weapon of choice today is not the metal-topped cane, but poisonous words.”
As an example, she recounted the reaction to her work in early 2009 to lower the cost of the stimulus bill. Bloggers on the left dubbed her “Swine Flu Sue” for her position that funding for this pandemic belonged in a regular spending bill — where it ended up a month later — not stimulus legislation. Partisans on the right called her a RINO, or Republican in Name Only, and Republican colleague South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint led a campaign to inundate Collins’ office with out-of-state e-mails denouncing her actions.
“Sitting down with those on the opposite side of an issue, figuring out which issues matter the most to each side, negotiating in good faith and attempting to reach a solution are actions often vilified by the hard-liners on both sides of the aisle,” Collins said in her speech. “Achieving solutions is not the goal for many today; rather it is … to score political points, even if that means that the problems confronting our country go unresolved.”
It is not surprising that the popular television tactics of mockery, yelling and voting people off islands or dance floors have spilled over to politics. But, politics — and, more important, governing — is about writing and changing laws, not scoring political points.
In the current session of Congress, both parties have become primarily interested in the Nov. 2 election, not compromise and passing legislation. As a result, little has happened, leaving spending bills and needed policy changes in limbo.
Electing candidates who pledge to blow up Washington or Augusta or to undo everything the other party has accomplished — and stall anything else it wants to do — will only worsen the situation.
Instead, we need to elect people, as Collins said, “who not only work hard but work together.”