No Room for Civility in Politics

If you watched the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett in October of 2020, you saw, in the final moments, an unexpected moment of kindness between two political opponents.

Sen. Diane Feinstein commended Sen. Lindsey Graham for running “…one of the best sets of hearings that I’ve participated in.” And then she hugged him.

And as of today, November 24, 2020, that decision cost her the seat as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary panel. In a move that is typical of the cancel culture we commonly see on both sides of politics, the progressive members of Feinstein’s party demanded her resignation for failing to be aggressive enough in her responses to Graham.

Brian Fallon, executive director of the advocacy group Demand Justice, summed up exactly what is wrong with our current political system in his response to Feinstein’s resignation.

“Going forward, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee must be led by someone who will not wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum that Republicans abandoned long ago.”

… [W]ishfully cling to a bygone era?

Are we really so divided that there’s no room for even a kind word to others who serve in the same governing body?

This brand of thinking perpetuates the bad blood in our broken political system. It prioritizes the needs of the party and ignores the fact that the people involved in this exchange are both Americans serving at the will of the people.

…[C]ivility and decorum that Republicans abandoned long ago?

If it’s true that the Republicans abandoned this kind of good will long ago, (and I certainly won’t defend them), then what we most need are mature, measured leaders who will recognize the opportunity to lead the return to civility and decorum instead of promoting a “race to the bottom.”

The hard truth about our current political stalemate is that destructive behavior only generates more destructive behavior and ensures a downward spiral that we’ll never escape. It’s no surprise that we see this kind of conduct because the existing system demands unconditional loyalty to the parties above all else.

And here’s where continued incivility will land us:

“But civility is even more important because it creates an environment in which people are able to have meaningful conversations on the most difficult matters. Incivility infuriates opponents, making them want to respond in kind. Incivility makes opponents feel under assault and vulnerable, causing them to lash out. Incivility turns a discussion about a policy matter into a personal fight between combatants.”

Andy Smarick, The Bulwark

Someone must have the courage to go first. Like the soldiers in the Christmas Truce of 1914, someone has to be the first to stick a neck out and do the hard right thing.

In this case, Feinstein went first, and though it cost her something, her choice has set an example for what’s possible if we never lose sight of the fact that the people in the opposite trenches are fellow Americans, and they aren’t the enemy.

If we want her effort to matter, others have to follow her example, even when it costs them something. And it likely will. But those small efforts will create momentum and force the party leadership to notice that change is coming.

If you appreciate Senator Feinstein’s efforts at civility, consider letting her know. (Emailing her is tricky if you don’t live in California, but consider Twitter, a phone call, or traditional mail. )

It won’t reverse the decision about the Judiciary Committee, but she will know that her effort meant something to someone, and she’ll take that knowledge forward with her into her other roles in government. Without our encouragement, this could be the last time she takes this kind of stand.

When the soldiers in World War I chose to do the hard right thing by coming out of their foxholes unarmed, their literal lives were on the line.

Though no one’s physical life is in danger here, moving to trust those in the opposing trenches will surely cost us something. But it could be the beginning of a story that people will tell for years to come. And it could mark the beginning of the end of the divisiveness and partisanship that have brought us where we are today.

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