The recent ambush shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise with a military-style assault weapon has shocked Congress and prompted a bipartisan call for increased civility.
Ironically, this comes on the heels of a Republican-driven bill that has made it easier for those with mental illness to purchase army-style assault weapons. While I applaud and commend an effort towards a bipartisan movement fostering more civility in legislative dealings, I have to say that I’m skeptical it will ever come to be.
We have witnessed an alarming increase in bitter partisan incivility at national, state and local levels that has led to government dysfunction and a corresponding disillusionment for many Americans who feel that our democracy is just not working. But is there now a glimmer of hope that this can change for the better?
The one major fly in the ointment to bringing this change about is our Commander in Chief, Donald Trump, who has inculcated a more toxic atmosphere of odious incivility. He is the poster child for divisive and obnoxious behavior.
Our “Insulter in Chief” has opened unbridled warfare against anyone who opposes him (including the news media, courts and justice system) — even his own cabinet members. Trump’s name-calling is prodigious. His Twitter messages are some of the most uncivil and divisive assaults ever waged on his adversaries (real or perceived).
In short, the “Trump shadow” looms large over anything the Republicans do or say.
Furthermore, he has publicly stated that anyone not happy with a political outcome should exercise “their second amendment remedy” — a thinly veiled threat of gun violence. He carries on all the while rarely, if ever, challenged by his steadfast supporters.
Thus, count me an unabashed skeptic that this Republican-dominated Congress will make any significant changes on the civility front.
Taking their clues from the top, conservatives see violence as the way to deal with conflict and disagreements. Example: Recently, a Republican candidate assaulted a news reporter by body slamming him to the ground. He was elected anyway and cheered on by his supporters. (So much for “civility.”)
Here in Meriden, we have seen numerous examples of rude and obnoxious behavior from city council members. One councilor in particular wears his Trump “Make America Great Again” hat to every council meeting with his Trump bumper sticker prominently displayed on his notebook. He is the only councilor to stand when speaking to his colleagues, and has a habit of rudely taking over the public comment microphone from citizens who have come to speak at the public comment session.
This same council member ignited a controversy by characterizing Meriden as “inner city Detroit” with a racially insensitive remark — behavior which prompted a call for his resignation from some African-American residents and others who were offended. It will be interesting to see if this councilor (and his supportive council colleagues) will join the civility movement.
I have three suggestions to improve civility in our body politic.
First, let truth, facts, and the rule of law be the basis for rational discussion and debate not “Alternative Facts” and “Fake news” (even Fox News has recently dropped it’s phony “Fair and Balanced” mantra).
Second, there should be some measure of accountability for incivility and untruthfulness and a reckoning for those who operate outside accepted norms. The recent case of Alex Jones, the crazed conspiracy theorist who said the Newtown tragedy was faked along with other nutty statements, should be vilified by all. Censure in such cases should come from all sides of the political divide.
Thirdly, we need to keep in mind that, as human beings, we all have different and strongly held values and beliefs. But we should not equate ideologies with the person. The bottom line is we can agree to disagree and respect each person’s right to his or her opinions. We must endeavor to appreciate and fully consider diverse opinions as we look to solve complex societal problems. Demonizing and inciting violence are not acceptable actions in a Democratic, civilized society.
Incivility and divisiveness are eroding the ability to govern at all levels by creating unbreakable gridlock. This, in turn, is undermining our institutions and bedrock norms.
Maybe we have reached a moment to pause, reflect and change how we are thinking and behaving. This would be laudable. But the real substance is the action we take as concerned citizens by demanding appropriate behavior and positive results from our elected officials as they serve us, the American people, in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
It is worth the effort.
Michael S. Rohde is a former mayor and city councilor of Meriden.