Can we restore compromise and civility to politics?
Politics used to be the art of the possible. Now it's the art of making pledges that render dealmaking untenable.
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Legalized conflicts of interest
What we don't need is a chilling acceptance that money should be allowed to rule elections. The divisiveness and hyperbolic campaign rhetoric that marked this fall's midterm elections were fueled in part by a Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.Skip to next paragraph
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By a single vote, the high court decided earlier this year that restrictions on campaign expenditures by corporations and unions violated constitutional protections of free speech.
With linguistic gyrations, this activist court changed the dynamics of future elections. In equating "money" with "speech" and "corporations" with "individuals," First Amendment protections were given for the expansion of legalized conflicts of interest in American politics.
The words in the Citizens United case seem civil. The effects are not. Our Founders did not envision a corporatist democracy. Abraham Lincoln did not speak of a government of, by, and for corporations.
Four-letter words may offend. But some of the politest conversations in public life can be the most uncivil.
As a congressman for 30 years, I recall how frequently a member's walk to the House floor would be interrupted by a lobbyist.
The lobbyist would cheerfully note how his group had supported the congressman in the previous election and hoped to in the next – but would then add that, by the way, there was a critical vote coming up and he hoped my colleague would understand the need to vote the "right" way. After asking politely about the spouse, the lobbyist would move on to another member.
Conversations of this nature were quite genial. But the persuasion had little to do with the best interests of the country.
A civil brand of politics
What uncivil speech and less-civil money have to do with the coming years in American politics can be summarized in one question: "How can elected officials indebted to primary voters who abhor compromise and/or interest groups with debts to collect find common ground to advance the common good?"
The short answer is that it could be next to impossible. The longer answer is that it is possible if all Americans work to support a brand of politics that reins in moneyed conflicts and promotes a more civil approach to public decisionmaking.
Jim Leach, a former 15-term Republican member of Congress, is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Leach was recently honored with the Search for Common Ground's "Common Ground Award" for outstanding accomplishments in conflict resolution, negotiation, community, and peace-building.