A Great Tragedy in American Politics
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Alaska Rep. Craig Johnson’s greatest disappointment with politics today is the inability of policymakers to disagree without being enemies.
“It seems now that if you don’t agree with my policy, you’re a bad person,” said Johnson, the 2014 chair of CSG West. “Just because legislators or parties can disagree, that doesn’t make anyone inherently bad; it just means we disagree. That civil discourse we’ve lost—that ability to debate without becoming enemies—is probably one of the greatest tragedies in American politics.”
That inability to get along in Washington, D.C., is creating problems in the states, Johnson and other members of The Council of State Governments leadership believe.
Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch, a 2014 co-chair of CSG East, said people lack confidence in the federal government and that will have some trickle-down effects.
“I think the federal government has to show some form of ability to work together to establish long-term stability within the country,” he said. “If there’s no stability or certainty at the federal level, it makes state government much harder to operate.”
That translates into much more than a lack of confidence in those who govern, according to Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, CSG’s 2014 national chair. It could affect states’ bottom lines.
“(W)e’re all being hobbled by the crippling effects of the dysfunction in D.C. It’s hobbling our economies,” he said.
Nebraska Sen. Beau McCoy, the 2014 chair of CSG Midwest, echoed that concern.
“We’re struggling to balance budgets at the state level in the midst of a lot of turmoil in Washington,” he said.
But dysfunction is not just a Washington problem. It has affected relationships in state capitols across the country. Ohio Sen. Frank LaRose has been working with the National Institute on Civil Discourse to spark conversation about the way legislators converse with one another. He believes restoring civility in government will improve the success of the federal—and state— governments.
“I believe that if we have a more civil dialogue, not only within the legislature but also outside—the general public conversation that occurs regarding public policy—the more civil that is, the better service we can render as elected representatives,” LaRose said.
LaRose contends that civility in government is not just elected representatives being nice to each other.
“In the entire course of human history we’ve found two ways to solve our problems: You can use force or you can use dialogue. You can use ballots or you can use bullets,” he said. “I served in the Army for 10 years and I’ve been to places where they still try to use bullets to solve their problems. I much prefer the first choice—the route of discussing things.
“The whole idea of representative democracy and self-governance breaks down, I believe, if you’re not able to have a civil dialogue within the legislature and, in the broader sense, within the body politic when it comes to how we solve our problems.”
That means leaders must compromise for the good of their state and country, LaRose said.
“Compromise is not a dirty word. I believe that compromise is the essential tool that statesmen and women use to find solutions to problems,” he said.
Congress is not setting a good example of that, according to Arkansas Sen. Keith Ingram, the 2014 CSG South chair.
“Unfortunately, it’s widely viewed by those not in Congress that we have somehow lost the ability to work through the give-and-take process for the betterment of the country,” Ingram said. “It’s the one thing. Forget tax reform or forget immigration reform. Forget any of those issues; this overshadows everything.”
Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, a 2014 co-chair of CSG East, believes the middle in the political equation has been forgotten—and that’s bad for the country.
“The most pressing issue facing the nation is the strong divide between the two parties, the far left and the far right, and the absence of people in the middle who are fast becoming disgusted with the process and opting out rather than participating,” he said.
Norris and the chairs of CSG’s four regions shared their insights with Capitol Ideas about the state of the country as policymakers prepare for the 2014 legislative sessions. In addition, LaRose discusses a project to improve civility in government. Read more in the January/February 2014 issue of Capitol Ideas magazine.