This is a season of giving, good cheer, and forbearance. Too bad that, as the political season begins in earnest with the turn of the year, all those fine sentiments will become just a memory.
So maybe, as we jot down our New Year’s resolutions, we could add this one: “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” And then let’s hope that our political leaders add it to their lists, too.
That simple resolution came from the pen of George Washington. It was the first of his “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior.” Washington was a mere teenager of 16 when he wrote them down, which ought to make any number of our current elected officials pause and reflect.
For too often in recent decades our politics have been strident, polarized, coarse, even mean. We do not show respect to those present. We do not even show respect to those who are not present but, by virtue of televisions, newspapers and the Web, are just as tuned in as those who are there. And because we do not, we are all the poorer.
Incivility directly affects both the quality and the quantity of the hard work of governance. Along with the outright rudeness that often marks our public discourse, it makes it virtually impossible to reconcile opposing views and, therefore, to meet our civic challenges. Anyone can walk into a room where there are differences of opinion and blow it apart. What is hard to do is to walk into the room and bring people together. That is political skill of the highest order.
So why shouldn’t we just ask politicians to resolve to be more civil? Why do we need to put it on our lists, too? Because everyone in this country has a responsibility to foster a civic dialogue that respects the people with whom we disagree and that advances the interests of the nation.
Knowing how to disagree without obstructing progress is a basic civic skill. The more that ordinary citizens state their case and their principles cogently, in a manner that is substantive, factual, and does not attack the motivation or patriotism of those with whom they disagree, the better our political system will work and the stronger our nation will be. If we know how to do this ourselves and to accept no less from our leaders, then we can change our politics.
In a democracy, it is not enough just to let politicians set the rules of engagement. As citizens, we need to know how to cultivate our own skills: to stay informed, volunteer, speak out, ask questions, make discriminating judgments about politicians and policies, and improve our neighborhoods and communities.
And we need to know the values that underlie productive civic dialogue: mutual respect and tolerance; the humility to know that sometimes we’re wrong; the honesty to keep deliberations open and straightforward; the resolve to surmount challenges whatever the obstacles; and, of course, the civility that allows us to find common ground despite our disagreements. If we come to value all this, then the politicians who spring from our midst will have to, as well.
It seems a small thing, resolving to be more civil. But it’s not small if we put it into practice — if we get off the sidelines, engage with the issues in front of us both large and small, and learn firsthand a basic appreciation for the hard work of democracy: how to understand many different points of view and forge a consensus behind a course of action that leads towards a solution. It is the actions of many ordinary people rolling up their sleeves and digging into the issues they confront in their neighborhoods and communities that keep this great democratic experiment of ours vital.
This is because every one of us who hones the civic skills needed to renew our politics makes it that much more likely that our nation will thrive. That’s not a bad goal, as we finish out one year and turn toward the future.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.