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Columns

September 23, 2012

Lack of civility keeps Congress unpopular

I heard the results of an interesting survey the other day. Americans hold Congress more responsible for our current economic plight than they do big banks. Corporations were further down in the list of responsibility. Few thought that we the people were responsible for our current plight.

Perhaps Congress is just a reflection of us all. I lamented last week about the erosion of civility as people now converse through impersonal means like the Internet, email and tweets. In these media, the nuance of inflection and tone are lost, and sincerity sometimes is interpreted as sarcasm, or sarcasm as sincere but uncivil expression. As we de-emphasize one-on-one communications, and as we demonize those who don’t agree with us, we find civility declining.

We certainly see this in the body politic. There was a time, not too long ago, that the House and Senate were most well-mannered. Our leaders would have the great, and sometimes impassioned, debate, but they would then enjoy a round of golf or an evening together.

Our leaders have few opportunities to socialize across party lines any more. The increase in campaign costs and advertising means our leaders must devote much more time to fundraising. They do so with lobbyists in Washington and deep-pocketed constituents at home. They certainly cannot accomplish this at a baseball game with their cross-party colleagues.

This reality is ultimately divisive. When any of us spend less time with those of differing views, we fool ourselves into thinking everybody agrees with us.

In this process, we don’t converge toward the center of thought of our broader community, but rather toward a narrow community of like-minded individuals. Liberals hang around with liberals and watch MSNBC, while conservatives hang out with conservatives and watch FOX News. In the process, the traditional bell-shaped distribution of political and social views becomes bi-modal, like camels’ humps, with the vast center partitioned into the left or the right.

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