When I talk with my constituents, they frequently ask, “Why can’t you people get along? Why are you more concerned with blocking the other guy rather than finding solutions that work for everyone and getting things done?”
They’re frustrated. I am, too. I’m frustrated because the increasingly divisive, mean-spirited and distrustful nature of our political speech is crippling our ability to do the work needed to solve the problems that face us and to bring prosperity to our state.
A key to America’s greatness, beginning with our Founding Fathers, has been our ability to get along with each other and move our country forward, even when we disagreed. In very neat handwriting, George Washington recorded 110 rules of civility in his copy book — such things as politeness, “neither cursing nor reviling” and looking at a problem from an opponent’s point of view. Although he lived in chaotic and revolutionary times, his civility served him well. He brought people together and solved seemingly insoluble problems.
Today also is a time of great change. Automation and foreign competition are challenging our economic system, our social fabric is frayed and the health of our planet is imperiled. Some see our future as uncertain and bleak. They want to return to an idealized, rose-colored past. To fire up their base they raise their voices, sow divisiveness and emphasize our differences. In the short run, they are often successful. They are theatrical, play on passions, grab media attention — and they may win an election or two. Unfortunately, they also foster cynicism and disengagement. They put in doubt the validity of the very system of government they profess to support.
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Democracy is a way for individuals with different opinions and ideas to come together to make decisions for the greater good. Yes, the process is slow, flawed and frustrating. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is the worst form of government there ever was — except for all the others.
Civility, the habit of treating each other with courtesy and respect, is a linchpin of democracy. It requires that we exercise restraint and recognize that to overcome differences we must trust in our future together, that we will ultimately find common ground. Disagreements are part of the process but can be thoughtful, respectful and civil. In 1787, people with passionately held opinions came together to forge our Constitution. Our Founding Fathers were able to put aside rhetoric and listen to each other’s needs, and they knew they would prosper together better than apart.
As a physician I learned to listen to my patients and repeat back to them how I understood what they had said. Only when I had done this could I begin to think about a solution to their problems. It did them little good if I arrived at a conclusion but had not taken the time to understand what had brought them to my office in the first place. When I had listened and understood, I could use my medical knowledge to help them.
Likewise, governing requires that leaders spend more time listening than talking. They must understand the perspective of others who see the world differently. They must be able to communicate that they have listened to and understood the core concerns of others, giving voice to these concerns and receiving acknowledgement that they have got them right. Then all parties can move forward. It is a long process and often exhausting, but it is the only process that leads to lasting solutions. It is what democracy is all about.
There is little to be gained from inflammatory speech, distortions of the truth, denigration of the “other” or simplistic solutions to complex problems. These are the tools of demagogues, and we must never confuse the crowd-inciting ways of a demagogue with the leadership required to govern.
Democratic government is based on listening, civility and finding solutions that work for everyone. These do not mean ignoring our differences nor backing down from tough debates or giving up the fight for what we believe is right. The ability of our leaders to engage in thoughtful discourse that neither demeans their opponents nor denies the legitimacy of their viewpoint is what allows our government to serve us well. Listening, civility and finding solutions that work for everyone are traits that we must nourish.
Sen. Geoff Gratwick represents Bangor and Hermon in the Maine Senate.