People in Maine 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?
I recently addressed this issue in the Margaret Chase Smith Lecture at the University of Maine. It is my hope that these thoughts will help spark much-needed reflection among both political leaders and the citizens who elect them.
It is entirely reasonable to think that the poisonous atmosphere in Washington is both part symptom and part cause. 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.
Today, the art of compromise seems woefully out of fashion. Since I joined the Senate 18 years ago, I have witnessed a withering of statesmanship in Washington. 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.”
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.
On the other side of the equation is 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.
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, displacing face-to-face contact. 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.
Today, polarization even shows up in where we chose to live. Through a phenomenon called “residential sorting,” conservatives are consolidating in rural areas and outer suburbs, and liberals in inner suburbs and urban centers. The redesign of congressional districts that is necessary after every census is increasingly partisan, with each party seeking to gerrymander districts to maximum advantage. As a consequence of packing highly partisan voters into discrete districts, moderates and independents are marginalized and their influence diminished.
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. 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.
Civility does not require us to stifle our disagreements. We still can and should vigorously debate issues and even tell unpleasant truths. But there is a right way and wrong way to have these disagreements. A famous example from history illustrates the point.
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, 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. 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.
Contrast that with the infamous speech Senator McCarthy gave four months earlier in Wheeling, West Virginia. 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.
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.
A return to civility and a spirit of compromise must be driven by concerned citizens. We all must work in our communities 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.