We, the people, must demand civility from our politicians
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Politics is often described as a contact sport, but it’s not normally meant literally. But after Wednesday’s incident, in which Montana Republican Greg Gianforte allegedly assaulted a reporter asking questions about his campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, we’ve crossed a line in civility. The fact that Gianforte won the election — which some attribute to the fact that there was heavy early voting in the state — raises a serious question as to where we, the people, are willing to draw the line on incivility.

If we want to make America great again, let’s return to the values of freedom of the press and a free and open dialogue with our elected officials. We can start by demanding more of our elected officials. Upon election to Congress, elected officials take an oath of office, bearing true faith and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and swearing to support and defend it against all enemies foreign and domestic.

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We should be able to stop there. But in this new climate where some politicians refuse to hold town hall meetings and reporters are arrested or assaulted for questioning public officials, we should expect more of candidates running for public office.

 

At the National Institute for Civil Discourse, we have five simple rules that all candidates should follow: be respectful of others in speech and behavior, answer questions being asked of you, either by constituents or members of the media, make ideas and feelings known without disrespecting others, take responsibility for past and present behavior, speech and actions, and stand against incivility when faced with it.

These rules shouldn’t be hard to follow. Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, we can all agree that our democracy depends on a free press and prioritizes an open dialogue with our elected officials. Constituents and reporters are supposed to ask the tough probing questions that the First Amendment allows. We all have a difficult job to do when we vet candidates for office, and frankly, if someone doesn’t want to answer questions from the press or their constituents at a town hall meeting they shouldn’t run for office.

What happened in Montana is one more in a growing mountain of incidents that continue, sadly, to highlight the need for we, the people, to demand a return to civility, in our hometowns, our state capitals and in the halls of power in Washington.

Physical violence, as we were taught by our parents, is never the answer. How did we get so far off the track that candidates physically and verbally attacking the press — let alone each other — become just a blip on Twitter? America is better than this. Our future and the future of our country is at stake. This behavior won’t stop unless we make it clear that such juvenile behavior is unacceptable, will not be tolerated, and will not earn our votes.

We deserve vigorous debate by candidates seeking our vote, to hear their ideas and hopes, as well as their plans for making things better. Then we can make an informed decision on who wins our vote. So we need to ask the tough questions, and the press amplifies our voice and asks the questions we may not have the opportunity to ask.

We all know that the bitter, vicious turn politics has taken isn’t going to change until we demand it. Reasoned discussion, which can occasionally lead to raised voices, is part of living in a democracy. But we must hold the people seeking our votes to the highest of standards and make them act like the leaders they claim to be or refuse them the job they seek by not giving them our votes.

After all, they are running to represent us — whether on the town council, the state legislature, or in Washington. We have a voice in all this, and we need to stand up together and demand a return to civil, spirited debate on the issues — not on personalities, parties, or “he said, she said” arguments. If a candidate wants our vote, we should make sure they earn it the old fashion way, based on their ideas not on their party label, the size of their wallet or because they yell the loudest.

Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, an organization that works to reduce political dysfunction and incivility in our political system.


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