Bill Owens: Civil Discourse

Jun 22, 2017

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Gerald F. Sieb spoke to the issue of the loss of civil discourse, and recites as examples the body slamming by the newly elected Republican congressman from Montana, a Democratic state party chair hurling obscenities at the president and party dissidents, a speaker chased off college campuses, and town hall meetings where law makers are shouted down by hecklers. (Let me first note from personal experience that this is not new; this behavior reared its head in 2009 and 2010, executed then by Tea Partiers as opposed to what is now described as the radical left.)  I would add to that list these repugnant displays: Joe Wilson calling President Obama a liar in the House of Representatives in 2009, Kathy Griffin holding a severed head bearing a likeness to President Trump, and the birther nonsense relentlessly promulgated by Donald Trump during Obama’s presidency.  Trump’s most recent attack upon the London mayor is also very troubling.  Mr. Sieb points out how this denigration of civility has spread beyond politics to professional athletic contests, where athletes take what should be routine plays and raise them to the level of the acts of Greek gods, largely by mocking their opponents.

The idea of a civil discourse has been destroyed by talk shows, whether on television or radio; take for example, Fox or MSNBC.  Twenty years ago, I thought the statements being made by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk were simply so outrageous as not to be believed by a single thinking soul.  I clearly was wrong.  A civil discourse begets factual information and ultimately compromise.  As we drifted away from civil discourse, we lost moderation and moderates.  Most constituents want a loud advocate who will proclaim their particular political belief(s).  Many reports suggest that 20 years ago there were about 200 moderates in Congress, and when one looks back at the achievements of Reagan and Tip O’Neill, as well as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, whatever the rhetoric that either side was spouting, they made deals.  They made those deals in the best interest of their constituents.  It did not appear to me when I was in Congress, nor does it appear to me today, that there are truly many moderates left because their constituents wouldn’t stand for it.  In addition, what is the motivation to be a moderate if you are in a district that heavily favors your party? Thus, we have elected representatives voting to satisfy Republican or Democratic promises or agendas.

If we are truly interested in a civil discourse, the place to start is by gathering facts—those which support your position and those which are in opposition—so that you can perform an intellectual analysis and you go into a discussion with sufficient factual information to make a decision.  This would make it much more difficult for legislators to simply accept whatever the talking points are of their party.  Where does it start? With each of us, as we engage our families, friends and opponents. What we need to be doing is demanding that politicians address the facts.  I rarely see that from politicians or their constituents.  As the old saying I heard often during my Air Force Service goes, you are part of the problem or part of the solution—advice we should all heed.

Mr. Owens is a former member of Congress representing the New York 21st and a Senior Advisor to Dentons.

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