One of the hardest things to do in Congress is to cease thinking of your opponent as your enemy.
Why wouldn’t you think of them as your enemy? You sit on opposite sides of the House chamber. You caucus in different rooms. You take opposing votes. Every two years they raise money to try and take your job.
The truth is those on the other side of the aisle are not the enemy. They are Americans, just like the citizens they represent back home in their districts.
The frame of “politics as combat” is ingrained into our society. The language of war permeates media coverage: The “WAR OVER THE WHITE HOUSE” or “HEALTH CARE BATTLE” or “CANDIDATE A BLOODIES THE NOSE OF CANDIDATE B.” We understand why: it’s an illustration of a complex subject in easy terms. It’s the same reason we use sports analogies to in the workplace: a win is a “slam dunk,” and when it’s your coworker’s time to contribute, the “ball is in their court.”
But the difference is that these war analogies are harmful to the state of civility in our politics. Language matters. We cannot ignore the innate violence of this rhetoric, which has spurred us further and further into a place of polarization and discord. For many, working across the aisle is synonymous with “colluding with the enemy.”
The seats in the House of Representatives are not battle lines. They are places for members of Congress to sit and listen to their colleagues, with respect.
When we both left Congress, it was bad, but not this bad. The 2016 election is shaping up to be one of the most uncivil in decades, from the presidential level to the local level. We’ve seen a candidate physically assaulted for his political beliefs in West Virginia, riots in San Jose, and endless insults on social media attacking the personal character of politicians and citizens alike. This behavior is undemocratic.
Polls show that Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the tone and tenor of the 2016 election is closer than ever to resembling warfare. Whoever lands in the White House will have their work cut out for them to put back the pieces of our splintered populace and restore civility.
If we’re to ensure a bright future for our nation, we must stop thinking of politics as war where our opponents must be defeated at any cost. Politics isn’t war, it is debate—the democratic means by which we come together to move America forward.
That’s why we are working with the National Institute for Civil Discourse to revive civility in our politics. We expect our leaders to act like leaders, not bar-room brawlers, and we hope citizens will stand up, peacefully, to incivility.
We’re not calling for a return to some “magic center” of American politics. No such center exists. There will always be liberals and conservatives, folks from across the ideological spectrum that agree on little. Folks in Northern California may never agree with those in South Texas about alternative energy. New Yorkers will never agree with Utahans about the role of religion in government. This is a vast nation with vast ideas. We’ll never agree about everything—nor should we. The strength of democracy depends on rigorous discourse, where all points of view are heard, considered, and countered. Rigorous discourse allows us to understand complex issues, analyze the trade-offs, and enter into policy-making decisions with detailed information.
But we do agree that our leaders should seek solutions, not conflict. Working together takes a mutual respect. Comedians often ridicule the tradition of members of Congress calling each other “my friend from X state,” or “my colleague from across the aisle” while giving speeches. This tradition is an important step away from the war analogies pushed by the campaigns and the media.
But by calling the other member a “friend” or “colleague,” they’re starting from a place of respect. The members are acknowledging that each of us have a right to our own opinion, no matter how wrong it may be. Treating the opposition with civility and respect is the first step toward actually getting things done and solving problems.
There’s an old saying: “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.”
We like dogs just fine, but they never helped us pass legislation that created a job, kept America safe, or put a child through school.
Our friends in Congress certainly did.