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Edwards and Glickman: A Call for Civility in American Politics

Just a little more than a year ago, a gunman shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) at a meeting she was holding with constituents in Tucson, Ariz. Even though the shooter did not appear to be motivated by a political agenda, the intimate portrait of Giffords that emerged prompted many who engage in what now passes for political “conversation” to reassess the increasing tendency toward demonization of those whose beliefs or experiences have led them to hold positions different from our own.

When we routinely deride the intelligence and character of those with whom we disagree, the people at the receiving end of our vitriol are people like Giffords, who is a fellow in a program of the Aspen Institute and who, for all her own special talents and goodness, embodies a commitment to public service shared by thousands of other American political leaders of different parties and varying viewpoints.

Gabby’s shooting prompted the emergence of a new commitment to civility — new institutes, new programs — and serious examination of possible causes for our tendency toward incivility, including the roles played by confrontational media, the party system, the absence of civic education and people sorting themselves into communities of the like-minded.

There have been some small, mostly symbolic, gains in the attempt to create a more civil discourse — a few Democrats and a few Republicans sitting together during the president’s State of the Union address — but name-calling is a hard habit to break. It’s time to restart the process. Call it Gabby II.

The two of us have known each other for more than 35 years; we were first elected to Congress at the same time, Dan Glickman as a Democrat from Wichita and Mickey Edwards as a Republican from Oklahoma City. We are certainly not poster boys for consensus: It’s an impossible goal in a nation of more than 300 million people with diverse backgrounds, and we differ on a number of important issues.

But we respect the sincerity each of us brings to the political process. Because we were able to start with mutual respect and were therefore civil — even friendly — with each other, even when we disagreed, we were able to accept the hard reality that because neither of us would get everything we wanted on every issue, it was often necessary to compromise in order to keep America’s government, the original “government of the people,” working.

Conservative philosopher Michael Novak once observed that our political institutions are designed to “clang against each other.” As he put it, “The noise is democracy at work.” We should welcome the lively contest between alternative directions and policies. But when the alternatives have been considered and their merits weighed, it is time to find the ground on which we can all stand together.

Both of us direct bipartisan political programs at the Aspen Institute; Dan is also a key figure at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Mickey works with No Labels and the National Institute for Civil Discourse. We have made a commitment to each other that we would devote much of our time and energy to helping Americans regain the ability to engage with each other in civil tones and temperate language.

We want to disabuse our colleagues in the political world of the idea that compromise is betrayal and intransigence is a virtue. Working together, we helped organize a series of lunchtime dialogues to consider how we could find avenues to break down the walls that keep Americans of divergent views from listening to each other.

When the Founders shaped the system of government we are so familiar with, they created not merely a new structure but, politically, a new world.

For centuries, people had been “subjects” of government; here, they were to be not subjects but citizens, and that put the burden of governing the nation squarely on the shoulders of the people themselves.

We are divided on many issues, but we are one people, one nation, and we will not — we cannot — meet the burden of our citizenship unless we are willing to do it together, as neighbors, able to debate our varying viewpoints with mutual regard.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence, themselves representing different regions and different interests, pledged to each other their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. While they did not always agree when it came to creating this new world of theirs, they stood together. We should do no less.

The stakes are high for us, as they were for the Founders: America’s role as an economic, political and moral leader is dependent on our working together to meet our constitutional responsibilities.

Former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.) serves as executive director of the Aspen Institute-Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership. Former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) was secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration and now is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and executive director of the Congressional Program at the Aspen Institute.

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