Now is not the time to reject civility

Now is not the time to reject civility
© Getty Images

Democrats and Republicans in Congress are so far apart that it is sometimes impossible to think they can agree on anything. But one area where they both seem to agree is the bipartisan rejection of one of the most fundamental features of a functioning democratic republic: civility. This disturbing rejection is actually the last thing we need.

There is no doubt that after the Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughMurkowski celebrates birthday with electric scooter ride Graham urges Trump not to abandon infrastructure talks with Democrats 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests MORE hearings and final vote, the country is more deeply divided than ever. With the midterms quickly approaching, the alarming new mantra on both sides seems to be an embrace of violence, whether it is former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEric Holder: 'There are grounds for impeachment' in Mueller report Prosecutor appointed by Barr poised to enter Washington firestorm Dems struggle to make Trump bend on probes MORE declaring that when the other side goes low “we kick them” or Republican nominee Scott Wagner telling his opponent Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf that he would “stomp all over” his face with golf spikes.


Undoubtedly, the past few weeks have tested the fabric of our nation in an arena where the stakes have never been higher. Democrats are outraged that Republicans pushed forward the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee who is the subject of accusations of sexual assault. Republicans declared that an angry and irrational mob was hell bent on ruining the reputation of an innocent man. The Supreme Court wields immense power over the direction of in our nation, and the confirmation process for a new justice warrants passionate debate. Vigorous debate and dissenting views are a vital part of our democracy, but casting it with name calling and screaming tones with no thought of the impact on the human beings involved should be unacceptable.

The stark reality is that whoever returns to Washington next January is going to have to govern. Our nation and our citizens depends on it. That is why civility cannot be a passing trend or a fleeting inconvenience. This underlying and enduring American value is far too central to the functioning of our democracy. We will not be able to take basic steps like funding the federal government, paying for Medicare, or keeping the National Parks open without the ability to work together.

We have to find a way to get out of this downward spiral of negative rhetoric before it is too late. Civility is more than just what we say and how we say it. It is an understanding of the fact that everyone deserves respect and has a right to be heard. Only then will public trust and confidence in our institutions, and in the processes of our democracy, begin to be rebuilt again. In the current political climate, even when the Congress achieves results, it leads to a whipsaw back and forth between policy changes and endless recriminations of those policies as we witnessed with the Affordable Care Act and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Why is it that we have managed to thread the needle of disagreeing without being disagreeable for most of the last two and a half centuries, with the notable exception of the Civil War era, and now again many Americans feel we are dangerously close to coming apart? The laundry list of policies that have been reduced into screaming matches seems endless. It is not just the controversial issues like health care, the travel ban, and family separations. It is routine government processes like passing budgets and approving nominees. Extreme partisanship and political expediency have drowned out attempts to work together to find real solutions to the our national problems.

Today, both sides have nurtured the idea that politics is now a continuous win or lose combat, rather than the “art of the possible” for our future. We need to scale back our rhetoric and we have to do it fast. It has been said before, but we have to say it again and again that a zero sum approach fraught with disrespect and vitriol is a major threat to democracy.

In a nation of 328 million people, full of different convictions, cultures, and values, it is our duty as citizens to have tough conversations about the future we are building together. Those conversations will, and should at times, inflame passions. But if the cost of enacting a political agenda or scoring an electoral victory is the erosion of our democratic norms, we must acknowledge that is a price far too high to pay.

We do not have to wait for political parties to change. You can practice civility by listening to people who think differently from you and trying to understand how the life experiences of other people has led them to the beliefs they hold. Rather than attacking each other, focus on the ways in which you agree, a strategy to rein in the political heat. Also recognize that we may not be able to convince another person of our point of view.

When Congress is seated next year, it is possible there will be 100 new faces in the two chambers. It will be a critical inflection point because collectively they will have the opportunity to bring our country closer together or drive it further apart. If they can revive civility and respect and find areas of cooperation, they will be able to deliver something our nation desperately needs, which is a dependable and responsible government that can respond to the everyday needs of our communities and make real progress on the key issues facing our nation.

Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer is the executive director of the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.