Washington Must Rise to the Occasion

Oct 15, 2013

Many of our nation’s challenges are not being met, and many opportunities aren’t being seized, because our leaders are talking past one another. You’d think that the stakes of our ongoing budget and fiscal fights, for example, might inspire cooperation. Our economy hangs in the balance, and the full faith and credit of the United States is at risk. Yet our lawmakers can’t seem to come to the table or negotiate in good faith, let alone achieve lasting solutions. The best we’ve come to hope for these days are Band-Aid fixes that kick the can down the road.

We’ve got to break the cycle of gridlock and gamesmanship. It may sound trite, but a little civility in the public discourse and among our nation’s leaders and all who have an interest in our country’s future could help transform our problems from intractable to manageable—and maybe even solvable.

Why is incivility on the rise in our system? Congress is more divided today than at any time since the 19th century. That’s a direct reflection of the fact that the American people are politically and philosophically divided. The shrinking middle—among politicians and in the electorate—has resulted in more ideological voices on both sides, which doesn’t always lend itself to tame and polite political discourse.

What could elevate the level of the debate? Reaffirming our right to speak freely and exercising our responsibility to listen openly.

You can’t rebuild civility without first recognizing and respecting everyone’s right to speak and engage in the political process. Any efforts to silence any voice or any point of view—through intimidation, discrimination, or overregulation—have no place in our system and undermine understanding and progress. A vibrant public debate welcomes all voices, and the best ideas usually prevail.

But we can’t simply talk at one another. A civil dialogue requires us to listen—especially to those with different ideas and opinions. That’s the only way to establish respect and rapport, which can eventually lead to solutions. Listening also enables us to gain new insight or evaluate our own assumptions. The worst that can happen is that by better understanding our opponents’ arguments, we strengthen our own.

The recent budget crises—the government shutdown and an agreement to raise the debt ceiling before we default on our obligations—may or may not be addressed in the coming days and weeks. But civil discourse is essential to many of our national priorities, like addressing the entitlement crisis, reforming immigration, and overhauling American education. These are all great challenges that beg our leaders to rise to the occasion.

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