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Civility: Political costs of incivility

December 09, 2010|By Diana Olson

Part Two: While this year's political contests seemed especially bitter because personal attacks seemed to outnumber discussions of issues, history suggests that false accusations have been part of American political contests since the early 1800s. The challenge for both parties to work together may be more difficult than previously because of the recent negative campaigns, and the political culture of aggression and hostility that values winning at any cost risks leaving important legislation undone.

The problems with political incivility:

•Change of party control may elicit more incivility, which translates into lack of restraint in listening to differences of opinion. The former majority party can be angry at loss of control, and the current majority party may rush into passing legislation. Incivility creates an inability to govern effectively.

•House rules forbid engaging in personality debates and personal criticism of the Speaker of the House. Both the Senate and House have rules governing behavior on the floor, i.e. talking through the Chair vs. directly at each other as "the gentleman/ lady from California.

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•Mean-spirited partisanship and behind-the-door non-transparent transactions have replaced compromise, unity and friendship.

•Blame, shame, criticism, disrespect, lack of restraint and personal attacks against anyone who disagrees exacerbate hostile tension.

The House of Representatives had rules on decorum and debate that are rooted, in part, on a manual written by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. These rules exist in order to prevent potential personal clashes. If there were violations, and there certainly were, members would be censured. Unacceptable behavior included indecent language, which was considered unmannerly or uncivil.

Campaigns should be about defining broad goals, discussion of problems, listening and compromising with different political views. Because politicians often have strong egos and a need for power, these goals can be lost.

A willingness to be open to the opinions of others, patience, tolerance and sharing credit for the ideas of others can reduce the friction among strong-minded egos. Aggression is getting what you want with no regard for others. Assertiveness is getting what you want with consideration for others.

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