Dorgan looks to country’s ‘strong political center’ to restore civilityI t may take a “message from the American people through the ballot box” to tame negative, demeaning politics and a “deliberate strategy of delay” that keeps Congress from acting effectively, former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said in Grand Forks Monday.
By: By Chuck Haga , Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
I t may take a “message from the American people through the ballot box” to tame negative, demeaning politics and a “deliberate strategy of delay” that keeps Congress from acting effectively, former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said in Grand Forks Monday.
He said he doesn’t expect that to happen this election cycle, but he has faith in “a strong, strong political center in this country” eventually sending a wake-up call: “You’d better shape up. America is in trouble.”
Dorgan, who served 30 years in the U.S. House and Senate before choosing not to seek reelection in 2010, was featured speaker during a symposium on civility in public discourse hosted by the Conflict Resolution Center.
He spoke in a conversational setting at UND’s Chester Fritz Library with Hal Gershman, president of the Grand Forks City Council and a longtime friend and political ally.
Dorgan called the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United case — which cleared the way for unlimited political campaign contributions — “a corruption of our political system.”
Many are at fault for contributing to the harshly negative tone of today’s politics, the “demonization” of opponents and rejection of compromise, Dorgan said. Advocates for both parties have used “coarse language.”
But he singled out Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and quoted from a memo the former speaker sent years ago to potential Republican candidates.
Gingrich’s advice was to use certain poll-tested terms to distinguish yourself from your opponent, Dorgan said — words like children, success and liberty when talking about yourself, but words like pathetic, lie and traitor for an opponent.
“This has no place in American politics,” Dorgan said. “Yes, disagree with your opponent, and passionately,” but a willingness to see opponents as decent people and to compromise provide “the lubrication of democracy.”
Dorgan said “talk radio provides a great outlet,” and “I don’t believe we should take the microphone away from anybody.” But “a more diverse set of voices” likely would provide a more respectful debate.
From caning to ‘You lie!’
Earlier Monday, the symposium kicked off with a panel discussion by academics in the fields of law, political science, sociology, communications and social psychology.
Ideas of what may be considered civility or incivility have changed considerably over the course of American history, said Mark Jendrysik, professor and chairman of political science at UND.
He offered a contrast between the infamous 1856 caning on the U.S. Senate floor of Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., by Rep. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during a speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9, 2009.
Both events were shocking, but the fact that members of Congress don’t pull knives or physically attack opponents or issue challenges to duels with swords or pistols suggests that in some ways public discourse “has changed for the better,” Jendrysik said.
But both examples also provide lessons that “incivility pays,” he said. After he beat Sumner on the Senate floor, Brooks was re-elected and “received hundreds of canes to replace the one he broke over Sumner’s head.” Wilson was proclaimed a hero by some for calling out the president.
“Civility and incivility both have payoffs,” Jendrysik said. “Civility is absolutely necessary to make things work in Congress” and for people facing major issues to find common ground. But the notion of civility has been devalued as it has become easier to call someone out.
On much of talk radio, for example, “incivility toward your opponent is expected … in those closed communities of the left and right,” where audiences “expect some abuse” of opponents who are not present or represented.
Compromise is seen as evil, he said, and working with opponents is seen as selling out, or weakness. “Incivility is profitable,” Jendrysik said,” helping to win elections and ratings points.
Jan Kelly Moen, an adjunct professor of sociology at Bemidji State University, cited the increasing role of technology in shaping the debate over civility, including the creation of new “uncivil” shorthand language for texting: BIH, for example, for “burn in hell.”
Civility “is an incredibly pressing issue in the legal profession today,” said Kathryn Rand, dean of the UND Law School. The legal system’s adversarial nature contributes to that and to a public perception of lawyers as “more interested in winning or making money than serving their clients,” she said, and lawyers themselves seem to be losing confidence in their own profession.
But the North Dakota State Bar has adopted “a set of aspirations of professionalism and civility” to guide lawyers, Rand said, and the relatively small, close nature of the profession in North Dakota helps to bolster integrity.
Mark Meister, who chairs the department of communications at North Dakota State University in Fargo, suggested that a growing narcissism and “our propensity for attention” work against civility.
Another member of the panel, Mark Covey, professor of psychology at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., said a growing diversity and a quicker pace of life have led to language and manners that some may perceive as less civil. Jendrysik added that American society is less deferential than it used to be — young to their elders, people generally to those in authority — and that is seen by some as a decline in civility.
Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.