Americans not only vote for leaders who match our vision for the country, we elect people that we believe will work across the political aisle to get things done.
Unfortunately, over our combined 60 years serving in Congress, we saw too many instances of leaders losing sight of constructing solutions, instead resorting to uncivil personal attacks and demonizing their colleagues rather than working with them to achieve results. This incivility is not worthy of our nation.
In 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner was brutally beaten unconscious on the Senate floor, the world’s greatest deliberative body, because he had the courage to speak out against slavery. For decades, the House Un-American Activities Committee “investigated” fellow Americans, accusing them of communist sympathies and blacklisting them from Hollywood and public life, and the demagoguery of Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a dark chapter in the history of the United States.
Today’s incivility has taken on different but no less insidious dimensions. Vigorous and even fierce debate has always been part of the process. Increasingly, however, actions and rhetoric are employed not in service of ultimately reaching resolution to a national problem, but rather to entrench all-or-nothing propositions and politically demolish the other side.
Instead of settling policy arguments with civil exchanges, lawmakers appear on the news to decry their opponents. Far from forging common ground, these arguments devolve into “my-way-or-the-highway” clashes which are a road to nowhere. Incivility removes the capacity to ultimately transcend our differences. So when the democratically-elected representatives of the most powerful nation in the world dispense with civility and the aspiration of building consensus, we all lose.
Over our long tenures in Congress, it is difficult to count the number of times we personally disagreed over a policy. Yet we maintained a civility that left open the potential for compromise—if not on the issue immediately at hand, then possibly the next.
We treated each other with respect, understanding there was a person on the other side of the argument, not just a policy position. And this allowed us to work together, with our colleagues, to pass legislation on contentious issues from campaign finance reform to strong child care provisions that were included in welfare reform. In that spirit, we joined the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), an organization dedicated to holding our leaders accountable for what they say, and how they say it.
Unfortunately, this is not a model candidates are following in this year’s elections—some of the most uncivil in modern politics. We must hold every candidate accountable for their words, for contributing to the chorus of anger which threatens to further divide rather than unite us to meet our challenges. When deciding how to vote, we must consider not just the candidates’ ideas, but how they present them.
The incivility that is so pervasive in politics today is something that we, as the American people, have the power to stop. We are proud to support NICD’s Standards of Conduct, a framework through which citizens, the media, and candidates alike can revive the spirit of civility.
We expect our leaders to:
- Be respectful of others in speech and behavior,
- Take responsibility for personal behavior, speech, and actions,
- Speak the truth and act with integrity,
- Promote civility in political discourse, and
- Run a positive campaign by focusing on supported and opposed policies.
This is the foundation on which we can judge our prospective leaders and ensure they stand up for our beliefs and our dignity. All of us—leaders and citizens alike—must recognize that a personal attack is not a rhetorical technique; and it does nothing to solve the problem. We must listen to others and their opinions. Otherwise, how can we expect others to listen to us?
We know too well that tempers rise when the future of our nation is at stake: disagreements beget arguments which become rivalries and lifelong hatreds that we are unwilling to overcome, even for the sake of our country. But it is essential we remember that we each want what is best for our nation—a bright future for our children, jobs opportunities for all, a safe and secure country. We just differ on how to get there.
We hope you will join with us and the National Institute for Civil Discourse and take a stand against incivility. The strength of our democracy depends on respect – for everyone, their backgrounds, and their ideas. It is up to us to expect more from our leaders, to demand civility and a willingness to reach across the aisle to get things done.
Former Sens. Tom Daschle and Olympia Snowe are members of the National Institute for Civil Discourse Advisory Board.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.