April 20, 2019
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Text of Collins’ March 31 address at UMaine

“Thank you, President [Susan] Hunter. I’m honored to give the Margaret Chase Smith Lecture at a time that we celebrate the University of Maine’s 150th anniversary. I know that Senator Smith would be very pleased that I was just introduced by the University’s first female president — and I also know that she would be proud of the excellent job that you are doing.

 

“People in our State and throughout the nation have made it clear that they are fed up with the incivility and gridlock that have prevented congressional action on too many of the serious problems facing our nation. But that divisiveness and animosity raise a larger question: Is the hyperpartisanship that grips Washington a symptom or the cause of the incivility that we see throughout our society?

 

“In asking this question, I am reminded of the response former Senator Lowell Weicker gave to an unhappy constituent. When the constituent angrily denounced Senator Weicker and his colleagues, saying ‘you are all a bunch of liars, thieves, and womanizers,’ Senator Weicker calmly replied, ‘Well, it is, after all, a representative form of government.’

 

“The ‘symptom or cause’ question may seem to be a variation on the famous ‘chicken or the egg’ dilemma that has puzzled philosophers and scientists from Aristotle to Stephen Hawking. When it comes to the role of civility in all aspects of life, we do well to remember that we get a chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.

 

“It is entirely reasonable to think that the poisonous atmosphere in Washington is both part symptom and part cause. Here’s one way to look at it. If you have ever been between two mirrors that face each other, such as in a barbershop, you have seen the endless line of images fading into the distance. One reflection generates another, seemingly into infinity.

 

“In much the same way, incivility by political leaders sends a message to our society that such discourse is acceptable, while the increasing coarseness in our society is a green light to divisive politicians. Each reflects the other. One insult generates another, ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

 

“Perhaps it is time that we stop focusing on these damaging reflections and turn the mirror on ourselves.

 

“Let me begin by setting the stage, as I see it, with a discussion of the arena of discourse with which I am most familiar, the United States Senate. As our Constitution was being developed, legend tells us of a conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in which our first president applied the metaphor of the cooling saucer to the Senate. He compared the House to hot tea, which was then poured into the cooling saucer of the Senate, a metaphor reflecting the Senate’s more deliberative approach. The conversation may be apocryphal, but there is no doubt that the founders of our nation recognized the need for a legislative chamber in which the heat of political passions could cool.

 

“The Senate was designed expressly for that purpose. It is there that the interests of small states and of the minority point of view are to be protected. It is there that raw political power should give way to statesmanship. It is an ideal we have seen carried out by the great Senators of the past, like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Arthur Vandenberg. It is an ideal that we have embraced in Maine by sending thoughtful and respected leaders to Washington like Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Muskie, Bill Cohen, George Mitchell, and Olympia Snowe.

 

“To be sure, that ideal is not always met. In a 1935 radio broadcast, the humorist Will Rogers examined the courtliness of the Senate and found it, at times, to be less than sincere. The polite terms of address for the opposing party — such as ‘my good friend from Maine’ or ‘my distinguished colleague from Oregon’ — were sometimes delivered with such barely concealed dislike that Rogers suggested it would have been more honest for members to address each other as ‘the coyote from Maine’ or ‘the polecat from Oregon.’

 

“Just so nobody gets the wrong idea, I do not believe that the other Senator from Maine is a coyote, and Angus King is, in fact, ‘my good friend.’

 

“Eighty years later, there is all too often no attempt whatsoever to conceal disdain. And increasingly, those tensions appear to break down along partisan or philosophical lines.

 

“I am not endorsing phony politeness for appearances’ sake. But Senate courtesies are meant to be the external evidence of the Senate’s abiding culture. It is a culture that is built upon a foundation of respect and cooperation that is meant to transcend partisanship. It is a culture in which legislative goals are reached with patience, persuasion, and perseverance, not with raw power. These Senate traditions are important because they are intended to depersonalize the debate and to remind heated adversaries that when their current legislative dispute is over, they will be working again with their opponents on a different issue on which they may agree.

 

“Since I joined the Senate 18 years ago, I have witnessed a withering of this culture. Ideology and partisanship dictate far too much of our conduct. Obstructionism is too often employed for its own sake. Base motives are impugned for reasonable policy differences, allowing legitimate differences to evolve into bitter personal disputes. The cooling saucer more and more resembles an overheated skillet.

 

“I am uncertain who first described politics as the ‘art of compromise,’ but that maxim, to which I have always subscribed, seems woefully out of fashion today. 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 hard-liners on both the left and the right. Far too often, reaching across party lines — even when it produces results — is greeted with scorn by strident partisans who accuse the compromiser of being a ‘sell out.’

 

“For too many today, achieving solutions is not the primary goal; rather, it is to draw sharp distinctions and score political points, even if that means that the problems confronting our country go unresolved. That is surely one reason that Congress is held in such low esteem by the American people.

 

“Historians would tell you that the degree of civility in Congress has ebbed and flowed over the years and would point out that at least we don’t have one member caning another into unconsciousness, as happened in 1856 when a Representative from South Carolina flogged a Massachusetts Senator with a cane on the Senate floor. But in modern times, I have not seen the degree of bitter divisiveness and excessive partisanship now found in the Senate. The weapon of choice today is not a metal-topped cane, but poisonous words.

 

“So how did we get here? What are the factors? And are these factors symptoms or causes of a broader decline in civility? It is not always easy to tell. Let me start with a familiar example. Resentments have built in the Senate due to rule changes that diminished the role of the minority party. In the Senate, which used to pride itself on being the bastion of free and open debate, procedural tactics were increasingly used to prevent minority amendments during the last Congress. That caused the minority to overuse the filibuster to stop bills to which it could not offer amendments. That, in turn, led to the majority party breaking the Senate rules to change Senate rules — no small irony there — in order to prevent the filibuster in certain circumstances. The minority, appropriately, cried ‘foul.’ An election occurred, the minority became the majority, but guess what? The new majority then changed its mind and decided that it liked these new rules after all, now that they favored their side.

 

“Another negative development that has contributed to the decline in civility is campaigning against one’s colleagues. When I was a freshman Senator in 1997, Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island, as fine a gentleman as has ever graced the Senate chamber, advised me never to campaign against those with whom I served — a practice I immediately adopted. The Senate is too small a place to campaign against your colleagues, he counseled. It will poison your relationship with them and make it much harder to work together.

 

“Was he ever right.

 

“Back then, most Senators followed the ‘Chafee Rule,’ but that soon changed. Now many Senators enthusiastically campaign against their colleagues across the aisle. Some Members even campaign against incumbent Senators in their own caucus.

 

“I know how maddening this can be because it has happened to me. One example: when I supported reasonable background checks for gun buyers to prevent criminals and individuals with severe mental illness from buying firearms, a Republican colleague helped raise money for a far-right group that produced negative television ads in which I morphed into — Barack Obama.

 

“By the way, I showed the ad to the President and he was quite amused — in fact, he said he thought my hairstyle looked good on him.

 

“The problem is that personal attacks in campaigns have detrimental effects that last long after Election Day. Successful legislative partnerships depend on trust. It is difficult to consider someone a potential trusted legislative partner when that person has taken the extraordinary step of traveling to your home state to criticize both you and your work.

 

“There is no shortage of party groups, special interest groups, and super PACs to do that kind of campaigning — there is no reason for Senators to be doing it to each other.

 

“These and other bruising campaign tactics make it harder for the Senate — and the country — to transition from campaign mode to governing mode. The seemingly constant campaign cycle is aided and abetted by cable and radio shows whose ratings often depend on reaching small but highly partisan members of the electorate. Certain television shows will invite only those who will inflame the debate. Those who will suggest compromise or tone down the rhetoric won’t be invited.

 

“The tactics of the campaigns and talk shows now leak into the halls of Congress, even during formal ceremonies. Consider the House member from my party who interrupted President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress a few years ago by yelling ‘You lie!’ Or the House Democratic member whose contribution to the health care debate consisted of asserting that Republicans had a two-word plan — ‘Die Quickly.’

 

“More recently, the letter from most my Senate Republican colleagues to the Ayatollahs in Iran was, in my view, unwise, inappropriate, and an ill-advised break from Senate tradition. It was not, however, despite the cries of some, ‘treasonous.’ There is a considerable amount of ground between a serious policy mistake and a crime that is punishable by death.

 

“Which brings us to the other side of the equation — the role that society plays in Washington’s division and dysfunction. From how we recreate, to what we think, and even to where we live, America appears to be pulling apart into factions. We are isolating ourselves from those who aren’t just like ourselves.

 

“Twenty years ago, the social scientist Robert Putnam wrote an essay, later a best-selling book, titled Bowling Alone. In these works, Dr. Putnam surveyed the decline in what he termed ‘social capital’ in the United States since 1950. Using bowling as an example, he found that the recreational leagues that used to bring people from all walks of life together had all but disappeared. Where once these leagues gave the bank president and the auto mechanic, the teacher and the retiree, the opportunity to get to know one another, Americans were now bowling in solitude and isolation.

 

“This stands in stark contrast to the observation made by the French social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville during his visit to America in the 1830s. A great strength of our young nation — especially here in New England — was the willingness of citizens, regardless of wealth, occupation, or level of education, to join in voluntary associations. From building schools to aiding the poor, shared goals were achieved.

 

“Today, polarization even shows up in where we chose to live. Through a phenomenon called ‘residential sorting,’ a Pew Research Center study finds that conservatives are consolidating in rural areas and outer suburbs, and liberals in inner suburbs and urban centers. Never mind bowling leagues; people of different political beliefs aren’t even seeing one another in everyday activities.

 

“Residential sorting is exacerbated by the desire for political advantage. And this can take strange shapes — literally.

 

“Can we have the slide please? Does anyone know what this is? It is not a Rorschach test — it is the outline of a Congressional district in Pennsylvania.

 

“So is this. You see, the district has to be contiguous.

 

“And this. It looks like my idea of what the Aleutian Islands look like.

 

“The redesign of congressional districts that is necessary after every census is increasingly partisan, with each party seeking to gerrymander districts to maximum advantage. With only two districts, Maine is relatively immune. But as you can see, in many states, the boundaries of districts can be truly byzantine, with politics destroying the sense of community built by history and geography. As a consequence of packing highly partisan voters into discrete districts, moderates and independents are marginalized and their influence diminished.

 

“It is particularly alarming that the Pew study found that a growing number of Republicans and Democrats view each other not just as the opposition party, but actually as a threat to our nation’s well-being. The more politically engaged a person is, the more likely it is that he or she has adopted this apocalyptic view of people who could be neighbors, soccer coaches, and school-board members. It seems that we need to revise the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt, as the evidence mounts that unfamiliarity is the real culprit.

 

“This tendency to live with people who think as we do is an example of Washington reflecting society, as both the Republican and Democratic caucuses have less and less to do with each other. This exacerbates the incivility problem because, as one of my colleagues observed to me recently, ‘It’s difficult to hate someone you really know.’

 

“Something as simple as sharing a meal together can help build these relationships. To that end, I co-hosted the first of what I hope are many bipartisan Senate lunches this year.

 

“I have a reputation as being someone who has a knack for putting together a bipartisan agreement. My secret is very simple — you have to understand what motivates all the parties involved. I applied that lesson to my bipartisan luncheon. In order to ensure that the event was a success, I served fresh Maine lobster prepared using my favorite University of Maine lobster salad recipe. It will come as no surprise that, despite the very busy schedule that Senators keep, we had nearly perfect attendance.

 

I need to make one thing clear. Civility does not require us to stifle our disagreements. We still can and should vigorously debate issues and even tell unpleasant truths. Otherwise, we would be left with nothing more than polite but meaningless discourse devoid of passion and principle. The point is, there is a right way and wrong way to have these disagreements. A famous example from history illustrates the point.

 

“The great leader we honor today provided a shining example of how a vigorous discussion of a challenging issue should be conducted — and her foil in this story is a perfect example of how such a discussion should not be conducted.

 

“When Senator Margaret Chase Smith went to the Senate floor on June 1, 1950, to deliver her famous ‘Declaration of Conscience,’ she did so not to demonize Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy as a person — as tempting as that probably was — but instead to denounce his actions. She certainly gave him great offense, but she spoke the truth about his tactics of ruining reputations, crushing free speech, and smearing his opponents.

 

“Just as important, when she condemned the accusations of ‘communist’ and ‘fascist’ that were flying about the Senate chamber, she was addressing both sides of the aisle. It was an incredibly bold move that resonated with the American people and helped to bring the Senate back to its senses. Americans again felt the touch of what President Lincoln used to refer to as ‘the better angels of our nature.’

 

“Contrast that with the infamous speech Senator McCarthy gave four months earlier in Wheeling, West Virginia. His opening remarks that February day were intended to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but Senator McCarthy had clearly evaded his better angels. His speech was a tirade of accusation, fear-mongering, and name-calling. That speech was not corrective, but merely destructive.

 

“History has judged these two approaches and declared a clear winner. Today, Senator Smith is revered as a model of leadership who left a remarkable record of accomplishment. Senator McCarthy is but a sad chapter in our history who left only a scar.

 

“Let me now turn to the role that the Internet plays in this whole discussion. The Internet has the potential to bring people together by making new information and different points of view available to all. Ironically, it all too often has the opposite effect. Studies by the Pew Research Center have found that the Internet is displacing face-to-face contact and that Websites devoted to political and social issues increasingly are tending to the extremes, where alternate views are either ignored or misrepresented and ridiculed.

 

“The divisiveness of social media is fostered by the prevalence of anonymous commenters who are shielded from any repercussions to their ugly and false statements. Personally, I have never understood why anyone would care what ‘maddog38’ and ‘hippiegal’ think about an issue, but that is the trend.

 

“We have all seen routinely how seemingly mundane discussions deteriorate into online food fights. A fairly innocuous op-ed I submitted to a Maine newspaper last month illustrates the now-familiar pattern. I was explaining my view that federal agencies have an obligation to use the most current and accurate scientific information in their decisions, and that members of Congress have an obligation to provide oversight to ensure that was done. This was not exactly the type of article that would capture the imagination or inflame the American public.

 

“My piece generated 48 reader comments. All but four were anonymous. The very first comment accused Republicans of being greedy; the second called Democrats stupid. That was basically the high point of the discussion — it went downhill from there. Very few of the comments had anything to do with the subject of the article I wrote.

 

“The harsh, anonymous comments appended to news articles are harbingers of the much more dangerous online phenomenon of cyberbullying. This is an enormous problem, and it is growing worse. We have all heard the heartbreaking stories of young girls and boys who have committed suicide due to relentless and cruel on-line taunting.

 

“Bullying in politics has become increasingly common as well. And, in addition to harming the workings of our government and discouraging good people from getting involved, it can have tragic personal consequences as well.

 

“We saw this one month ago in Missouri. Tom Schweich was the popular and effective State Auditor. Previously, he served as the lead investigator into the Waco siege, as chief of staff to our Ambassador to the United Nations, and as head of our counternarcotics initiatives in Afghanistan. Early this year, he announced that he was running for governor of Missouri.

 

“What happened next to Tom Schweich defines the term ‘the politics of personal destruction.’ First, he was attacked by an anonymously funded radio ad that, among other things, mocked his slight physical stature and called him ‘a little bug’ that should be squashed. Then, a whispering campaign began that he was Jewish, a clear appeal to the world’s oldest bigotry, anti-Semitism. On February 26, Tom Schweich took his own life.

 

“The eulogy at Mr. Schweich’s funeral early this month was delivered by John Danforth, a former Missouri Senator. Senator Danforth’s words were filled with admiration for his friend and of heartfelt condolence to Mr. Schweich’s wife and children.

 

“But his remarks also were a powerful indictment of what politics has become. To be sure, he said, politics has always been combative, but this wasn’t combat; it was character assassination. To those who said Mr. Schweich should have been less sensitive, that he should have been tougher and able to take the attacks in stride, Senator Danforth answered that such a view blames the victim and ‘creates a new normal, where politics is only for the tough, and the crude, and the calloused.’

 

“From the pulpit, Senator Danforth asked this crucial question: ‘If this is what politics has become, what decent person would want to get into it?’ And he posed this challenge, not just to the mourners, but to every American: ‘It’s now our duty, yours and mine, to turn politics into something much better than its now so miserable state.’

 

“Whether Washington leads the nation in incivility or merely reflects our society, we each can play an important role in elevating the level of discourse in our own homes, schools, and communities.

 

“In Washington, we who represent the people of this great nation must put progress over partisanship, statesmanship over stridency, and compromise over conflict. That would produce a very different legislative climate, one in which the objective is to solve the problem, not just to score political points.

 

“If I am correct that a return to civility and a spirit of compromise must be driven by concerned citizens, then you will have to lead the way. That means working in your community for a renewed social climate characterized by civility and respect for differing viewpoints.

 

“The challenge we face today was recognized by Senator Margaret Chase Smith in her ‘Declaration of Conscience’ 65 years ago. While she avidly supported her party, she did not want to it ride to political victory with the ‘Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.’ Let us put those four out to pasture, and saddle up the one called ‘Civility.’ We might be surprised at how far it will take us.



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