Montana Viewpoint: An easy way to start restoring civility

American voters are angry at politicians, and is it any wonder?

The voters are divisible into at least two groups; those who are angry that Congress can’t get anything done, and those who are angry because they have been cheated by politicians who couldn’t deliver on their promises.


Jim Elliott

Often, the promises in the latter case were: “If elected I will not compromise, I will shake up the government and I will succeed.” The first promise, to not compromise, doomed everything else to failure.

It is the same tactic as a child holding his breath until he is given what he wants; it soon becomes apparent that breathing is more important than getting what you want. The breath-holding exercise that led to a government shutdown in 2013 didn’t go well for Republicans.

Whether then-Speaker John Boehner was giving the hardliners a lesson by forcing them to take a close look at reality by letting them have their way, or whether he actually believed it could work, is immaterial.

The lesson learned was that it was unpopular with the public, and in his final act as speaker in late 2015 Boehner adopted compromise (as did the Democrats) and another showdown was avoided. Current Speaker Paul Ryan seems to understand the perils of not compromising as well.

Anyone who has been in a personal relationship knows that the key to getting along, if not to being happy, is compromise. Why can’t politicians act on that simple bit of wisdom? Sure, we want what we want and we want it now, but that doesn’t happen very often. We are now in an era of extreme polarization, and that’s not good for America.

Worse, we are in an era where those holding one viewpoint can’t tolerate others with a different viewpoint. A cardinal principle of debate is that you argue the issue at hand, and not disparage the person you are arguing with. It goes back millennia and has survived because it works.

But modern politics was stood on its ear in the early 1990s by two men, Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich. They conceived the notion of demonizing the opposition and turning out their own voters. It worked. People who were the objects of the personal attacks became demoralized and didn’t vote, but the tactic energized the aggressors, who did vote.

While it was political brilliance insofar as it handed the House of Representatives to the Republicans and elevated Gingrich to the speakership in 1994, it has had the most deleterious effect on American democracy imaginable. It has led us to a situation in which we are unable to talk with one another, and talk we must if we are to survive as a nation.

There is an easy way to do this. Not quick, but easy. I discovered it for myself, as had many before me, by making an effort to get to know members of the opposite—in this case Republican—political party.

Every once in awhile I would approach a member of the opposition for whom I had respect to find a way to spend some nonpolitical one-on-one time with them. Whether it was dinner, sharing a ride or anything else didn’t matter as long as it was understood that there would be no politics discussed.

It worked for me because I made new friends in spite of the fact that we had significant political disagreements. It allowed us to debate issues without anger and to be friends afterward. I don’t know if I ever changed anyone’s mind, but I do know I didn’t make enemies—at least with the opposition. There was some grumbling about me by members of my own party for simply liking Republican legislators.

Members of Congress should give it a go, and it wouldn’t hurt if we plain citizens did it, too.

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek. 

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