With Republicans in Washington threatening a federal government shutdown and Wisconsin Democrats in hiding, talk of civility may seem a bit quaint. But as Sen. Susan Collins noted in a speech last week, little gets done in Washington or in state capitols when people are yelling at one another or working to undermine one another to score political points.
“It may not be easy to feel passionate about civility and compromise, but it is easy to feel passionate about a vibrant, just and prosperous America,” Sen. Collins told members of the Cumberland Club in Portland last week. “To achieve that, however, we need to get passionate about electing members of Congress who not only work hard, but who work together.”
This may sound a bit “Pollyanna” when Congress narrowly averted a government shutdown this week by passing a two-week spending plan — Republicans still threaten to oppose a budget that doesn’t include deep cuts. Or when Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state to stop Republican lawmakers there from passing legislation to eliminate collective bargaining rights.
But if calls for civil discussion and political compromise are dismissed — or worse, mocked — we can expect more walkouts and shutdowns, which benefit no one.
At the congressional level, Sen. Collins gave two examples of what she considers “decidedly uncivil acts, designed not to reveal the truth but simply to cause offense.” She cited Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s shouting “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009 and a Democrat’s summary of the GOP’s health care plan as “die quickly.”
“To be sure, tumult is inherent in democracy,” Sen. Collins said in her talk. She then quoted Thomas Jefferson: “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”
She also made a distinction that too often is lacking in today’s yell-fests. “There is, however, a great difference between waves of lively, informed debate that propel ideas forward and a tsunami of insult and false accusation that destroys everything in its path.”
Today, that tsunami has swept away facts, respect and courtesy.
As Sen. Collins acknowledged, speeches such as hers won’t turn the tide. Rather, the public must realize what it has lost and vote for those for whom the “objective is to solve a problem, not to win the debate.”