September 23, 2012

Lack of civility keeps Congress unpopular

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — 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.

Few seem concerned about the smaller, or at least less-visible, group still in the middle that can recognize great new ideas can come from either side.

In fact, I see a lot of great ideas flowing from both sides of the Congressional aisle. Concepts of fiscal sustainability, investment in infrastructure, the need to rationalize regulation, the need to sometimes regulate some sectors more, the belief that good ideas are often local, the sense that we are all members of one country under one government, our requirement for a leaner health-care or education infrastructure, and our need to ensure everyone is included in our prosperity with a level playing field, are ideas that will make our nation safer, stronger and more productive.

Wisdom less often flows from within than from a rare ability to see great ideas from wherever they come. A wise leader certainly ought to have a vision of where this country can go, but should also have an open mind about how to get there. We can be certain that where we will be in a decade or two is very different than where we are today. Change is always difficult, but it is also unavoidable. If you don’t like change, I am guessing you will like irrelevancy even less.

These are the realities we hope our leaders understand. To me, the measure of their legislative success ought not be in their adherence to political dogma. Instead, it should be in their ability to take good ideas from all sides and do what is best for us all, regardless of party affiliation. Perhaps the best measure of legislators’ open minds and progressivity is the degree to which they are willing to not be good Democrats or Republicans, but good Americans. How each legislator votes with the other side might be a creative measure of how well they represent the silent centrists.

In a future column, I will try to glean just how often our leaders manage to look to “the other side” for new ideas that will move our nation forward. In the meantime, let’s keep our eyes open not only to those who agree with us, but also to those who have thoughts diverse from our own, and can express them in a civil, inclusive manner. If Congress did this, I am certain their approval ratings would not be in single digits. Indeed, we may even someday again hold them in our highest esteem.

Colin Read is a contributor to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at