Challenges for Upholding Legislative Civility
By Tim Anderson, CSG Midwest Publications Manager
An 1895 article in The New York Times described the tense and chaotic scene this way: “Revolvers were flourished and blows struck with such articles of furniture as the combatants could lay hands on conveniently.”
The place where the mayhem broke out? The floor of the Indiana House of Representatives after a dispute over a gubernatorial veto.
This historical anecdote, told by political scientist Peverill Squire during a keynote session in July at the CSG Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting, was a reminder that political passions and partisan strife are not new.
They are, in fact, an inescapable part of American legislatures and have had to be balanced by agreed-upon rules of conduct, an adherence to formal procedures and, perhaps most important, a commitment by members to forge trusting relationships.
“When you don’t have friends on the other side, it’s easier to dismiss them,” said Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist and author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion."
In his keynote address, Haidt described civility this way: “The ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency.”
More than in any other political era of the recent past, he said, our nation’s ability to maintain a healthy level of civility is at risk.
One factor is a rise in political polarization.
This increased polarization has occurred most notably in the U.S. Congress, where studies of voting records show the two main political parties have become more ideologically distant.
Recent studies of state legislatures show similar patterns; in fact, polarization is actually greater in many state legislatures—including Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin in the Midwest—than in the U.S. Congress.
Many factors have been cited as causing the rise in polarization: closed primary systems, party realignment and “purification,” media fractionalization and the lack of a “common enemy” to rally the country behind. But during his keynote address, Haidt focused on a more timeless force—our moral minds.
“Polarization is not so bad,” he said. “The problem is when the two parties are polarized, and that polarization perfectly matches moral divisions. Then it’s not just that we’re from different parties, but that we’re from different moral worlds.”
To understand how profound these divisions can be, Haidt described three principles of moral psychology and how they apply to politics.
The first of these three rules is this: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. In other words, we follow our gut feeling and then search for evidence to support it.
“This has enormous consequences for political civility and legislative institutions,” Haidt said. “People believe what they want to believe.”
A second principle of moral psychology, Haidt said, holds that there is more to morality than harm and fairness. When it comes to political ideology, differences in moral foundations play a critical role, as confirmed in surveys of liberals and conservatives.
For example, liberals build their moral matrix on three moral foundations: care, fairness and liberty, Haidt said. Care plays the dominant foundational role. But for conservatives, factors such as economic liberty, deference to authority, loyalty and sanctity all rise above care and compassion, he said.
So as parties have become more ideologically rigid and consistent, political races and legislative debates are about much more than who wins and loses, or which bills pass and which don’t.
“It’s become more of a moral sort,” Haidt said.
That leads to the third principle: Morality binds and blinds. Sharing similar moral foundations and political outlooks or religious beliefs brings people together.
Haidt referred to it as a “moral electromagnet,” one that not only binds people together, but can also rip them apart. This electromagnet tends to make every struggle about absolute good vs. absolute evil, blinding us to the idea that good people can disagree about politics and religion.
This electromagnet “has been cranking up.” since the 1980s and 1990s, he said.
With these forces at play, Squire emphasized the importance of setting and adhering to a code of conduct and a set of institutional rules for members to follow. For centuries, he said, rules of democratic institutions have tried to foster respect and congeniality among members, precisely to tamp down passions and partisan strife.
When rules are broken, he said, legislatures tend to break down as well.
“It’s when regular procedure is abused or violated or changed arbitrarily, and also when the opposition feels stifled—when they feel like they don’t have the opportunity to express themselves,” said Squire, a professor at the University of Missouri and leading expert on the history of U.S. state legislatures.
He worries that today, too many elected officials are focusing more on short-term political victories and less on the long-term health of legislative institutions.
During the MLC panel discussion, Paul Hillegonds, a former longtime Michigan lawmaker and legislative leader, mentioned several other worrying trends: changes in media coverage and electronic communication, the onset of term limits, and redistricting and its impact on the rise of intense political primary races.
But Hillegonds also offered some hope.
He recounted how, as a first-term legislator, his outlook on his legislative tenure and his legislative colleagues was forever changed for the better by taking part in a series of bipartisan seminars on tax policy. Through those seminars, he said, participants not only better understood public policy, but they also got to know, respect and like each other.
“You can’t create enough opportunities for legislative colleagues to learn together,” he said.
Later on, he served as co-speaker of the Michigan House when the parties shared power. Instead of gridlock, Hillegonds said, members from both parties found a way to compromise and work together. Committee co-chairs, for example, forged trusting relationships and established shared agendas.
“It’s worth taking a risk to share the creation of agendas,” Hillegonds said. “Not all the best ideas rest with one party in the majority or minority. Anything we can do as legislators to open up our agendas to different ideas, I think, realizes the best of legislative institutions.”