I had all sorts of things tossed at me in my position as secretary of Agriculture—organic seeds by naked men and women in Rome, bison guts in Montana and tofu pies in D.C. It turns out people really care about their food. In a way, I think my career was a preview of the incivility that would eventually engulf our politics; only instead of barrages of hateful tweets and public harassment, I got food thrown in my face.
Conservative philosopher Michael Novak once observed that our political institutions are designed to “clang against each other.” As he put it, “The noise is democracy at work.” We should welcome the lively contest between alternative directions and policies. But when the alternatives have been considered and their merits weighed, it is time to find the ground on which we can all stand together. Both of us direct bipartisan political programs at the Aspen Institute; Dan is also a key figure at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Mickey works with No Labels and the National Institute for Civil Discourse. We have made a commitment to each other that we would devote much of our time and energy to helping Americans regain the ability to engage with each other in civil tones and temperate language. We want to disabuse our colleagues in the political world of the idea that compromise is betrayal and intransigence is a virtue. Working together, we helped organize a series of lunchtime dialogues to consider how we could find avenues to break down the walls that keep Americans of divergent views from listening to each other.
Once Congress rediscovers the basic process for legislating, it’s also important to rebuild the personal relationships that used to transcend political views. Being civil to each other won’t, by itself, bridge the ideological divides we’re seeing now. But talking about family, spending time together on and off Capitol Hill in a casual setting, or chatting on the phone are all basic courtesies that could improve communication in the political arena and restore some much-needed civility. By doing this, lawmakers may also finally pull back from the recent habit of resorting to finger-pointing and calling the other side names in partisan media outlets. Instead of celebrating insults and snarky headlines, politicians should celebrate good values, respect and hard work. Pursuing compromise and reaching across the aisle is a strength, not a weakness. Having served in Congress representing diverse interests from Kansas, North Dakota, New York and Texas, we know the task at hand is daunting. These recent troubles can serve as a force for positive change and a return to real governing on behalf of all the American people. But only if our elected leaders take advantage of this opportunity and advocate for good governance.