The Hill- Watching the hyperpartisan impeachment process unfold in Congress, it is no wonder public faith in government is reaching historic lows. The petty rancor on the House floor and the never ending slew of vicious tweets by President Trump are a sign that civility is on life support. In fact, the demise of civility is one of the very few things that almost everyone seems to agree on. The latest annual survey done by Weber Shandwick finds that nearly 70 percent of Americans feel we have a serious problem with civility. Yet despite these gloomy indicators, there are plenty of reasons to believe that comity is not dead and trust in government can be restored.
It helps to take the long view. The Founding Fathers saw that conflict and division inevitably lay at the heart of our democracy, and they set out to balance a range of inherent tensions in the drafting of the Constitution, including the rural versus urban, states versus federal, legislative versus judicial. The Founding Fathers believed that conflicts would ultimately be resolved by the people, and their faith in us has been rewarded many times in the more than two centuries since the Constitution was ratified.
Rising above our political differences has never been easy. However, even in the highly polarized climate today, we are reminded that transcending our political divisions is possible. Consider the improbable friendship of George Bush and Michelle Obama. The political viewpoints of the former president and the former first lady in many ways could not be further apart. Yet the two have forged a warm relationship over the years. “We disagree on policy but we do not disagree on humanity. We do not disagree about love and compassion,” Obama recently said of her friendship with Bush.
This shared values sentiment resonates with a significant percentage of the American public. For all the anger and divisiveness that is laid bare on social media and on the cable networks hour after hour each day, there is a yearning for civility in our political discourse. In the Weber Shandwick survey, about half of the respondents said they choose to ignore people in their lives who are acting uncivilly or they choose to remove themselves from those situations. This suggests a genuine appetite to create alternative experiences for respectful and authentic political discussion.
With the right opportunities, Americans engage and hash out their political differences in respectful ways. Over the last seven years, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has held training sessions and forums, interacting with nearly 60,000 people from all political backgrounds on a range of crucial issues, from immigration to climate policy, to try to create understanding across differences and bring about change.
These efforts suggest that for all the despair and alienation that has been induced by decades of hyperpartisanship and exacerbated by the Trump era, there is a way forward. It begins with individuals embracing civility by making a choice to engage with those they do not agree with and not defaulting to reflexive distrust. If you do not believe this is possible, take a look at this documentary series that demonstrates what happens when a group of politically divided people come together to try to better understand one another and bridge their differences.
The naysayers will claim that our political discourse is irretrievably broken and that the unfolding impeachment with its lockstep party line votes proves that reaching across the aisle can no longer happen. But this view, which is endlessly stoked on social media, fails to take into account another reality. Americans are as hungry as ever to connect and engage. That hunger, along with a shared sense of civic responsibility, has sustained the republic for more than two centuries. In this holiday season when we pause to reflect and consider, it is time for all of us to step up and once again demonstrate that the people are better than our politics.