In Search of Civility in Our Political Life

Feb 28, 2013 by

— Ci-vil-ity (noun): politeness, courtesy.
— Civ-i-lize (verb): to raise from a primitive state to an advanced and ordered state of cultural development.
— Civil War (noun): a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country.

Once upon a time those who were afforded the opportunity to govern treated each other with respect and courtesy while working together to do what was in the best interest of those that elected them.

While they did not always agree on the details of policy, they worked together with a spirit of cooperation, coordination and shared responsibility. Those who possessed the art of negotiation and diplomacy were honored, hailed, and recognized as highly effective and skilled leaders. Working across the aisle with members of the other party was the true trademark of a democracy.

A win was declared when a desirable outcome was reached that positively affected society as a whole.

We were taught to respect the office even if we disagreed with the individual holding it. Whether you “liked” the president or not, the individual elected to that office deserved to be addressed as president. That is what a civil society does.

President Ronald Reagan recognized the importance of inclusion and epitomized this concept in uniting us as Americans. He reached across the aisle to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to work together for the sake of all Americans. He didn’t sacrifice his principles but rather understood that policy should be long-term and incremental. He understood that you don’t get everything you want but you continue to move forward, slowly and steadily, to lay the building blocks for future generations of leaders.

What has changed? How have we reached a point when anger, obstructionism, bipartisanship and manufactured crises have replaced diplomacy, cooperation, negotiation and problem solving?

A win is now defined by one’s ability to make the other cave or by a defeat at the polls. It is defined by who won at spinning the message or who raised more money to distort the other party’s views, intentions or character. It has become personal, ego-driven and selfish. Taking credit and assigning blame have replaced sharing responsibility and celebrating mutual success.

We have become so polarized that working across the aisle is considered disloyal. Disagreeing with the actions of your party is considered traitorous. Bucking the extreme factions of either party makes you vulnerable in a primary battle.

Holding moderate views, where the majority of voters are, brands you a RINO or a DINO – a Republican in name only or a Democrat in name only. Factions of their own party have unwisely dismissed good people with crossover appeal like Governors Chris Christie and Jon Huntsman. Cabinet nominees, like Sen. Chuck Hagel, have been targeted for defeat, despite having been touted as a great candidate for the position. His crime was putting independent thought over party loyalty.

The change needs to start with the parties. The tents need to be larger. The tone needs to be more civil. Tolerance needs to replace hatred, anger and ridicule.

How can we be a united people when the parties spend the vast majority of their resources attacking fellow Americans?

The American people are fed up. They want, and deserve, representation that is focused on defining problems and addressing them with an open heart and mind, a spirit of cooperation and unity and a willingness to consider all facts and opinions before passing judgment. They want commonsense, knowledge-based solutions. They don’t care who gets the credit; they want and expect results.

There is plenty of credit to go around, unless, of course, the motivation is to demonize your opponent as a political strategy for election or re-election.

Voters want the bitter, petty, personal attacks to be replaced by effective leadership, bipartisan cooperation and a spirit of unity.

With approval numbers for Congress at an all-time low, it’s time to wake up, start listening, shake hands, roll up our sleeves, embrace diversity, practice tolerance and empathy and work slowly and steadily toward a healthy civil discourse.

Truly effective leaders are knowledgeable, work well with others, admit and learn from their mistakes and put the well-being of others above partisanship and their own political ambitions.

Any volunteers?

Paula Dockery was term-limited as a Republican state senator from Lakeland after 16 years in the Florida Legislature. She can be reached at [1].

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