The publisher of our local paper has promoted some community discussions about civility recently. It has given me pause to wonder about this goal: civil discourse.
I attended the one locally and the big one that included a lunch down at LCSC. I heard many comments that wondered if the paper was truly promoting civility by publishing some rants and personal attacks in the letters to the editor. The defense was, and I agree with it, that reading someone’s comments is a great way to get to know your neighbors. And that really is what we need to be doing, getting to know each other. Civility helps.
Most of us have dealt at some time in our lives with name calling, bullying behavior. It was really hard to convince my daughters that responding in kind was wrong. When behavior or words cause you pain, the first response is to strike back. But I believe such behavior is wrong, for many reasons. It would have done no good to quote Abraham Lincoln: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
I went about public service with the presumption that civility was expected behavior. It made sense. If our elected representatives are going to debate and decide on laws, we need them to be listening to each other, and more, listening to us constituents. Listening is the foundation for civility.
Civility is the basis for negotiation and compromise; and such is the foundation that our convoluted form of governance, (you know, three branches, separation of powers, etc.) our representative democracy require to function.
But why do we need compromise? Why negotiate? Isn’t it all about who is in power and what that power can accomplish? I hope President Obama regretted saying “Elections have consequences”.
Imagine that from the position of the minority. When President Obama had majorities in the House and Senate and it became evident there would be no Republican votes for the Affordable Care Act should he have insisted on bipartisan support and stopped the process? Let the minority, now no longer negotiating the details of the bill, prevail? The majority ruled, and it was seen as tyranny by many. The resulting bitterness has delayed meaningful negotiation on health care reform for 10 years. And the ACA truly has done little to address our health care dilemma. Who knows, our failure to negotiate might get us stuck with Medicare for All. We sure haven’t cut the cost of health care. We aren’t negotiating.
Our framers built this system to require compromise and negotiation. Getting a majority to support something in committee, then in the body on one side of the legislature, then another committee and the body on the opposite side of the rotunda; this is a monumental task. That makes four hurdles to clear, not to mention the deep pits of the chairmen’s drawers between the hurdles. If you have, through rudeness or slight or provocation (or unfortunately now, party affiliation) offended someone in this path who you now ask to listen to your arguments, you’ve just made the hurdles higher, the pits deeper. And you will need an agreeable executive to sign the law.
The framers built this system to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
Maybe you believe your ideas have such merit on their own that you don’t need to persuade. All you need is the power of the majority. When that is the case, we have succumbed to the tyranny of the majority. And if that is the ideal we embrace; the most efficient form of government becomes a supreme authority. Is that what we want?
Is our current incivility an expression that we no longer value this republic?
I hope not. The least we can do as citizens is engage and demonstrate the civil behavior we expect from those we elect to represent us. We must.