Within days of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, the leaders of our government came together in prayer at the National Cathedral in Washington. The American people were shocked, devastated, and — in many cases — disorientated. We needed to pray together to strengthen ourselves. President Bush rose to the occasion that morning and gave inspirational remarks.
When the service was over, the president stopped, came over and shook my hand and kissed my wife Hadassah. I did the same to the first lady.
The president’s gesture was a simple one — but it sent an important message to the viewing audience. I had been Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE’s running mate in the contentious loss that had divided the nation less than a year earlier. I was, in other words, a visible representative of the political opposition. That moment hopefully signaled to America that, even if we disagreed on a range of political issues, we were, above all, united as Americans in a crisis. Together, we would put country first.
Anyone who lived through those awful days after 9/11 knows that the political crises we face now pale in comparison. We will all forever remember where we were more than 16 years ago when we learned that terrorist planes had struck America. Few of us will be able to recall where we were during the government shutdown of 2018.
However, today we confront a more tempestuous political environment. The basic rhythms of the national legislative process — the norms that prompted Republicans and Democrats to work together in the service of the greater good — are gone. Our democracy is proving unable to meet the challenges of the moment. We face real trouble ahead.
Unfortunately, Washington’s reaction to today’s crises bears no resemblance to the spirit of unity that followed the most devastating terrorist attack ever on American soil. Far from embracing one another, we’re growing more polarized.
Breaking with decades-old tradition, the two most consequential pieces of domestic legislation enacted during the last two administrations — the Affordable Care Act and the tax reform package passed late last year — were drafted in the absence of any meaningful bipartisan cooperation and without any bipartisan support.
The partisan ethos that compels many members to want to plow over their partisan adversaries isn’t limited to the legislative process. It’s on display in the mundane ways that color the interactions our leaders have with one another in the course of their everyday business. Civility seems to have left our national government.
The president’s State of the Union address offered the latest example of civility’s unraveling. Certainly, this wasn’t the first time members of the opposition have behaved in ways that denigrate the respect normally given to the nation’s commander-in-chief.
Republicans were guilty during the Obama administration with one congressman memorably interrupting President Obama during a State of the Union speech by shouting that he was a liar. But the blatant disregard for civility this year (Democratic members in the chamber were caught playing games on their smart phones) offered a window into a reality that runs deeper than any breach of decorum.
If Democrats and Republicans can’t even bear to listen to a president of the other party present his agenda in the temple of our democracy, how can we expect them to collaborate respectfully and productively when trying to find solutions to our most difficult problems?
None of this is to suggest that members should have the same reaction to each element of the president’s speech. At different points, some will stand and some will sit, some will applaud and some will not. After all, the State of the Union is one part policy speech and one part political theater. At a minimum, members of both parties should swallow the impulse to scroll through text messages, play Candy Crush during the speech or call the president a liar.
In other words, they should be civil and respectful. As members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus have argued our political adversaries deserve our respect. Without that, substantive collaboration is next to impossible.
In 1838, a young lawyer in Illinois gave a speech excoriating mob violence that had taken the life of an abolitionist newspaper editor. In pleading with Americans to embrace a common standard of civility, Abraham Lincoln exclaimed, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Those words are as true today as they were then. The attackers on 9/11 never stood a chance against the American people — and outsiders who wish us harm never will. But we have the capacity to destroy our democracy ourselves. Civility is the foundation of a productive democracy after which Democrats and Republicans can invest themselves in their common mission: a stronger, safer, fairer, more prosperous America.
Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, is national co-chairman of No Labels, an organization working to create a new center in American politics that puts country before party.