OPINION: Manners matter, even in politics

There is only one thing to say, really, to the people who’ve been shouting down members of Congress at town hall meetings around the country: Surely your mama raised you better than that.
Whatever your opinion is about the health care proposals in Congress – and there’s plenty to be concerned about – rude, ugly and intimidating behavior toward elected officials is not the called-for response. And drowning out others when they try to speak is certainly not “the American way,” which so many of the most vociferous protesters claim to defend.
It was wrong when the targets were George Bush and Dick Cheney, victims on occasion of left-wing harassers who didn’t want them to be heard. It’s just as wrong when it’s Democratic members of Congress.
The current shouters would likely have been among those most upset and offended by similar behavior toward politicians with whom they agreed.
Some have tried to excuse the town hall meeting behavior as pent-up rage seeking an outlet. You can’t expect people to be calm and reasonable when they see such massive government encroachment, they say.
Setting aside the overheated rhetoric that has defined the debate on health care – the kind that gets people worked up – there still should be some basic expectation of civility at public gatherings. Good manners don’t conflict with vigorous discussion or debate, unless your goal is simply a one-sided, take-no-prisoners assault on the proponent of an opposing view.
Respectful disagreement seems to be hard for many people to practice in this era of scorched-earth politics. Increasingly, politics is seen as a war in which there are winners and losers and fights to the death. Consensus and compromise – once the very definition of effective governance – is seen more and more as surrender. Everything is a zero-sum game.
It’s been said that one of the keys to successful organizations and communities is the recognition that so much more can be accomplished when people don’t worry about who gets the credit. In Washington politics these days, it’s about who gets the credit and little else.
Partisanship and ideology trump the search for solutions. Better no health care reform at all and a crippled presidency than a real search for a middle ground that might allow a Democratic president to take some credit for getting it done, some Republicans seem to think. Better to run over the GOP minority in Congress and stiff-arm their ideas than let them share in the credit for a better-crafted bill, some Democrats apparently believe.
Thus we have the distortions and misrepresentations that create a climate in which people are worked into a frenzy. But that’s still no excuse for the kind of behavior we’ve seen. It’s more of a mob mentality than an example of democracy in action.
Elected officials don’t deserve undue deference. They’re “public servants,” after all. But they do deserve simple respect, the kind our mothers tried to teach us to give to everyone.
Presidents and members of Congress of whatever party or ideology are elected by the people – there’s not one of them that got there any other way, unless they’re filling out an unexpired term through appointment. As much as we love to denounce and deride them, we elected them, so if they’re that bad, the majority that elected them is responsible. That’s the way our system works.
It doesn’t give the minority that voted the other way license to treat them as if they were illegitimately in office.
Democracy needs and thrives on robust debate and honest disagreement. But it also needs a degree of mutual respect and civility that stops short of viewing political adversaries as mortal enemies.
The recent round of political shouting, accompanied by outlandish statements by some public figures who ought to know better, is a symptom of an overheated political system not likely to be effective at crafting workable solutions to complex problems.
We need to step back and ask ourselves whether these town hall free-for-alls are really America at its best, or bullying tactics that hinder productive political exchange.
Good manners are a lubricant that any family, social group or institution – and certainly democratic government – needs in order to function effectively. Our mothers knew what they were doing.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

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