The joke around Congress is that lawmakers are so eager to get out of town on Friday afternoons, you can smell jet fuel in chambers.
Many escape the toxic Washington environment to head home and rail against their political opponents.
U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette says it’s not like the old days, when politicians would spend more time in Washington and socialize with friend and foe, building relationships and striking compromises on complicated legislation.
The result is the politicians barely know their opponents and find it easier to write a nasty speech or approve an attack ad — they rarely come face to face.
That’s just like everyday life, as the Beacon Journal and the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron found in a recent series of focus groups.
Asked to define civil or respectful conversation, one person said: “Making others feel valued or their opinions valued,” to which another responded, that’s so “not 21st century.”
“There’s an undercurrent that’s just uncomfortable and everybody knows it’s there,” one participant said. “We want to make it go away, but we know it’s not going to go away.”
The Ohio Civility Project, a joint effort of the Bliss Institute, Cleveland State University and the University of Mount Union, found in a statewide poll last year that citizens hold elected officials, political campaigns and the news media responsible for the uncivil discourse.
LaTourette, R-Bainbridge Township, blames the contentiousness in Congress on redistricting that creates overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic districts that “elect red-meat partisans, and they don’t tend to be the most civil.”
Can Akron do better?
Alarms about growing incivility have sounded around the country. The University of Arizona created a civility institute after the January 2011 shooting of then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. A Weber Shandwick study found that 86 percent of Americans reported being victims of incivility and 55 percent expect a lack of civility to become the norm in the future.
In Akron, the Beacon Journal has joined Bliss and the faith community in a yearlong effort to define the ground rules for respectful conversation and to change community expectations for how we interact.
The goal is to design a civility pledge and challenge citizens, organizations and leaders to accept the guidelines.
From experience, Mark DeMoss warns that it won’t be easy.
DeMoss is an evangelical public-relations executive who has worked for political campaigns and Christian organizations and was troubled by his own party in 2008.
In that year, he joined someone on the other side — Lanny J. Davis, who defended Bill Clinton against impeachment and defines himself as a liberal Democrat — in a challenge to every governor and member of Congress to accept a simple pledge:
“I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
I will stand against incivility when I see it.”
After getting only three signers, the project was abandoned in 2011.
It appears the pledge never had a chance. Many members of Congress, including LaTourette, vowed never to take a pledge other than their oath of office after being embarrassed by a no-new-tax pledge they signed in the mid-1990s that was used against them years later.
No pledges, no way
Marcia Fudge, D-Warrensville Heights, doesn’t sign pledges either and her staff knows it, so the civility pledge never reached her desk. But she says she does have strong feelings about civility.
“People have become so polarized on so many issues that people send people to Congress based on one or two issues and want them to never stray, to never compromise, to never change their view,” she said. “But I think what people don’t understand is that legislation and legislating really are the art of compromise.”
It was a problem when she got to Congress in 2008. “It’s been that way, my colleagues say, since 1996.”
She traces it to political strategies.
“They believe that when that Contract for America came out, it became an issue of not trying to work together but trying to destroy one party or the other. It was at that point that there was this big drive for members to run home every week, to not stay and spend any time in Washington and, as a result, we never get to know each other personally. ... We never spend any social time together.”
Congress has rules about conduct on the floor, so she said most of the ugly conduct is off Capital Hill in rallies and political ads.
“It’s playing to the media,” she said. “It is playing to the constituents at home no matter which side. People are playing to the extremes of our parties as opposed to the fact that we can work together and get something done.”
U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, made a similar statement by email: “Unfortunately, this highly partisan Republican-led Congress has been very disappointing in its failure to bring people together to produce results for the American people. In just the past couple of weeks, I have been accused of being an accessory to riots and importing terrorists. There are far too many in Congress who are looking to score political points rather than give the people we serve what they expect and deserve.”
Most area lawmakers were silent on the issue. The Beacon Journal contacted Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, Gov. John Kasich and Reps. Jim Renacci, Tim Ryan, Fudge, Sutton and LaTourette, asking for a five- to 10-minute interview or a written statement about civility from the legislator. Given 12 days to respond, only three did. (Brown’s press secretary issued a terse email statement denouncing incivility but it is not certain the senator ever addressed the question.)
DeMoss was not surprised to hear the politicians declined to comment. He said many will speak against civility, but they know that when a race is close, ugly attacks on opponents can win elections. He said some of the incivility comes from Political Action Committees with no formal ties to the candidates.
In addition, DeMoss said, many cannot agree on what constitutes civility. What amounts to an attack for one person is a rational discussion of the issues for another.
DeMoss believes style and substance make a difference. When a congressman called President Barack Obama a liar at a State of the Union speech, DeMoss considered it uncivil because he was interrupting a speech. But the issue at hand, whether health-care reform would benefit illegal immigrants, was a legitimate topic, in his opinion.
Closer to home
You don’t have to be a member of Congress to be the victim of mean speech.
Several examples came up in Beacon Journal-Bliss Institute focus groups conducted at UA’s Taylor Institute. The purpose of the groups was to learn about issues that are dividing the community.
While conversations were civil, participants nonetheless shared opinions that were sometimes in stark contrast with one another.
One woman who describes herself as a lesbian, Quaker and member of a mixed-race family and has a sibling who once faced the death penalty often finds herself in hurtful public conversations.
“I get a lot of situations where nobody knows I’m in the room unless I make myself obvious,” she said in an interview. “So I hear a lot of stuff that nobody would say if they knew I was in the room. And usually what happens when I say something about who I am, the responses are along the lines of that ‘You’re one of the good ones.’ ”
When she hears such comments, she just grows silent; the same thing that other focus-group participants said they did.
But that causes a problem for her. As a Quaker, she believes there is an element of God in everyone, and shutting people out is wrong, or even a sin.
So she often tells people enough about herself to let them know her situation, and the nastiness ends.
“I tie it back into the experience of being the invisible ‘them’ in the room,” she said. “When you are talking one-on-one with someone, you tend to think of whoever you are talking with as ‘us’ and other people as ‘them,’ and since I can sort of be in both roles, I can be the ‘us’ in the room and also the ‘them’ that gets talked about because it isn’t apparent I’m ‘them.’ ”
DeMoss said he found similar circumstances in Washington, where he was once told by a presidential aide that “it’s amazing, but it is difficult to be angry or bitter toward somebody you had dinner with.”
But he said gaining that familiarity and respect is becoming too rare. And he isn’t even sure the candidate he advises, Mitt Romney, will take the pledge.
“You just have to, one by one, try to make some progress,” he said. “I didn’t think I could turn the tide in this country. I just thought I could put some light on some dark spots.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter @Davescottofakro.
What do you think are the root causes of this incivility in our public debate? What do you think is the solution to this problem?