Former Legislators Sound a Warning, Call for Civility

By Jim Wallis 10-05-2010


Yesterday, a group of more than 130 former legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, released a letter urging for civility and encouraging candidates, once elected, to focus on cooperation to face our country's greatest challenges. The letter said:

None of us shrank from partisan debates while in Congress or from the partisan contests getting there. During our time in Congress, partisans on the other side may have been our opponents on some bills and our adversaries on some issues. They were not, however, the enemy.

Indeed, when did the other side of the aisle go from "honorable adversary" to the enemy? I've spoken to many of these political leaders over the years. They all tell me that heavy partisanship is not new, but an overt hostility toward the other side is clearly increasing and is a disturbing trend. Senators of different parties rarely have meals or drinks together anymore, which used to be common. Especially over the past few decades, the chance for Senators of different parties to get to know each other personally, or even their colleagues' families, has steadily dwindled. They now normally eat their lunches with their caucus or donors.

The letter goes on:

Congress appears gripped by zero-sum game partisanship. The goal often seems to be more to devastate the other side (the enemy, no longer the honorable adversary) than to find common ground to solve problems, much less to have a spirited but civil debate about how to do so.

They point the finger at both parties for this breakdown. How legislators hold on to "wedge issues" to run on as opposed to finding common ground solutions. The letter also recognized the outside forces at work:

The divisive and mean-spirited way debate often occurs inside Congress is encouraged and repeated outside: on cable news shows, in blogs, and in rallies. Members who far exceed the bounds of normal and respectful discourse are not viewed with shame but are lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances, and enlisted as magnets for campaign fund-raisers.

These public servants are no longer in office but do us all a great public service. They are sounding the alarm about the direction of our public discourse.

But, since their press conference on Monday, there has been scant coverage of their warning bell, even though the letter was signed by a large and thoroughly bipartisan group of our most distinguished former members of the Senate and the House. Makes you wonder if a big part of the problem is the media itself who seems to love the combat and confrontation and does all it can to exacerbate it. The media doesn't really believe that civility is sexy. But conflict truly is. While it sometimes decrys the poisonous political debate. (This morning a commentator said of the mid-term election campaign, "It's getting really rough out there," with a big smile on his face.)

The fact that the media is helping to lead us off the cliff into the politics of fear and the politics of blame is not a story that it is likely to cover. But the one it should be covering is how the blame and fear politics that is now so prevalent will deny us the politics that we most need -- the politics of solutions.

Civility may not be sexy, but it is now key to our political salvation. Read the letter from the former legislators carefully, read all the signatures, and compare their wisdom to the words of the people who want your vote this fall.

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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