We, the People adopted a Constitution in 1787 in order “to form a more perfect union.”
The convention that met in Philadelphia had to bridge some yawning differences among regions of the new country, among social and economic classes, and among large and small states that, in some cases, were disputing ownership of the same territory. Some historians have suggested that it was a “miracle” that such divergent and strongly held viewpoints could find common ground, but they did.
The political paralysis in our nation’s capital today that has been caused by Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Administration unwilling or unable to work together for the good of the country is a focus of widespread public concern. Too many government leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and too many business leaders on Wall Street, place their partisan political or personal financial interests ahead of the public interest.
Clearly, it’s time to remove the overheated rhetoric that has come to define public debates, whether in the Capitol building in Washington or at town meetings around the country.
At all levels of government, we need to dialogue in a way that is worthy of our great democracy. We need to understand that, in a democracy, people from different views and backgrounds are likely to disagree. However, we’ve got to be able to listen to one another and find common ground for solutions to the nation’s concerns.
Democracy is a messy process that naturally engenders deeply felt passions as people debate the direction of our country. However, we do not need to tolerate language and actions that shut others out of the system or prevent people from taking part in the democratic process. We need to respect the rights, thoughts and actions of others even when we disagree, and look for solutions that serve the national interest.
There is growing evidence that the state of civility in America is getting worse and that it is turning people off from participating in the political process – the process by which society’s decisions are made without violence or bloodshed. In its simplest terms, civility means treating someone else as you would like to be treated. Our political and business leaders seem to be forgetting this in their words and actions and, sometimes, we, the people forget this as well.
KRC Research conducted a survey of public attitudes on civility a year ago and again recently this year. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that we have a major civility problem, and they expect it to get worse in the next few years. Most Americans (86 percent) report that they have been victims of incivility in the form of rude or disrespectful behavior while driving or shopping, and six out of 10 admit that they, themselves, have been uncivil.
Lack of civility isn’t confined to Washington, according to the survey. Not only do people find it in political campaigns and in Congress, but in the media, professional sports, schools, the workplace, or in the social media realm. The most civil discussions, it appears, are among friends and family and around the dinner table.
Americans were asked about several factors that could determine their votes in the 2012 presidential election. While most people (92 percent) pick the candidate’s position on the issues as the most important factor in their voting decision, nine out of 10 report that “the way the candidate treats and deals with people with whom they disagree” is an important in determining their choice. They blame the media (35 percent) and political party leaders (27 percent) as the most likely culprits in uncivil speech or behavior.
The Internet is often blamed for creating a hostile and rancorous environment in public debate. John Temple, editor of Peer News, has said that “anonymity on the Internet has so reduced responsibility that comments sections have been dominated by ‘racism, hate, ugliness’ and ‘reflect badly on news organizations that have them.’” All one has to do is read the comments after an article in the local newspaper to understand the truth of this observation.
Most Americans (91 percent), according to the KRC survey, agree that incivility has negative consequences for America, and is harming America’s future, hurting its reputation in the world, and preventing it from moving forward. Two-thirds of our fellow citizens (67 percent) say that they have decided against voting for a candidate because he or she acted uncivilly, and nearly three-fourths (72 percent) “tune out” politics or government because of this disturbing trend. It is a matter for serious concern when people decide not to remain engaged in civic society.
When people “tune out,” they leave to a minority the choice of candidates and issues that will govern us all. If people who “tuned out” and failed to follow what candidates really stand for, or how issues will really affect their lives, we are more susceptible to being influenced by the clever ad or slogan rather than casting a vote in our own, and the public, interest if we decide to vote at all. In the coming election year at all levels, we should demand a political season focused on issues that matter to us as Americans. Let’s reject uncivil name-calling, rumors, and unfounded gossip that hinders our ability to make the best choices for our future.
Sen. Richard T. Moore represents 14 towns in South Central Massachusetts in the Massachusetts Senate. As president of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in 2010-2011, he was instrumental in achieving the adoption of the NCSL Civility Accord by which legislators and legislative staff pledge to embrace civility and bi-partisanship, respecting the rights of those who hold differing opinions and exhibit the kind of personal qualities reflective of a civil society.