Not Just a Buzzword: Civility is Key to Congressional Function

Betsy Wright Hawkings
March 6, 2017

The Freshman members of the 115th Congress know something we all know; the 2016 election was marked by some of the coarser political rhetoric of modern history, and not surprisingly left our country feeling more divided than ever.

More uniquely, they have taken an important first step toward doing something about it.

Last week, 28 Republican and 18 Democratic Freshman Members — representing red and blue states from coast to coast — signed a Commitment to Civility and spoke on the House floor about why they made this commitment, what their constituents had sent them to Washington to accomplish, and how civility is essential to working together across the aisle to achieve those goals. In all, 46 of the 52 new members signed the commitment, which urges productive dialogue and rejects the idea that political rivals are enemies.

Their civility statement cites the “…coarsening of our culture fueled too often by the vitriol in our politics and public discourse. One result has been a loss of trust in our institutions and elected officials.” Understanding that they will not always agree on matters of policy, they nevertheless agreed to “…strive at all times to maintain collegiality and the honor of the office.”

By doing this they believe they can help work more effectively, and even begin to restore the public’s trust in America’s institutions.

The significance of their effort cannot be overstated. To succeed, they will be working against deeply ingrained trends not just in our politics, but in our culture.

At Democracy Fund, we are working to reverse the dynamics that drive the lack of civility these Members of Congress are working to address. Our systems map on Congress and the Public Trust identifies the role that the lack of bipartisan relationships, reduced capacity of Congress as an institution to legislate based on facts, nationalized campaigns, reduced capacity of the media, and the lack of shared information through regular oversight all play in driving the hyper-partisanship that has led to the breakdown of civil relationships and legislative debate.

Many are familiar with the 1901 speech of President Theodore Roosevelt at the Minnesota State Fair, in which he summarized his approach to foreign policy by quoting the proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick — you will go far.” But as Roosevelt went on to note, “If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble … It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples … I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully…”

A similar message, more remarkable for its time, was an 1861 speech in Cincinnati, Ohio by Abraham Lincoln, who noted in speaking to Northerners, “We mean to remember that [Southerners] are as good as we; that there is no difference between us other than the difference of circumstances. We mean to recognize and bear in mind always that (they) have as good hearts in (their) bosoms as other people, or as we claim to have.”

While Lincoln steadfastly opposed slavery, he was making the point that humility would go a long way toward maintaining civility with his Southern fellow countrymen, and support the shared desire to live again “in peace and harmony with one another.”

While we believe our time is not as divisive as the Civil War era, the need for civility is no less urgent, as the constituents of these freshman Members have made clear to their representatives. The signing of the Commitment to Civility by more Members of Congress — but more importantly, the practice of it — could go a long way toward reducing the hyper-partisanship that so many Americans say they want Congress and our President to put aside in the pursuit of the common good.

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