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After Arizona shooting, how can Congress heal the division? Break bread together.

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords (D) and bystanders in Arizona seems to be the worst symptom of the division and disdain that dominate politics. There was a time when members of Congress not only reached across the aisle, but shared meals together. They must commit to break bread together again – to heal the wounds in DC, and set an example for a grieving nation.

By Michael M. Cohen / January 11, 2011



Manchester Center, Vt.

This month the 112th United States Congress was born. These 535 men and women – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – who represent us are beginning to confront the many crucial issues that face our nation. They will do this in an institution where hyper-partisanship reigns and where there seems to be no limits on how members talk about one another. The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona and bystanders this weekend seems to be a horrifying example of how such an atmosphere has trickled down to the rest of us.

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Commenting on how political culture has changed for the worse in Washington, outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania, 80, said in his final Senate speech: “Collegiality can obviously not be maintained when negotiating with someone simultaneously out to defeat you, especially within your own party. In some quarters, ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word. Senators insist on ideological purity as a precondition. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine had it right when she said we need to distinguish between the compromise of principle and the principle of compromise.”

He concluded by quoting journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts, “Civility is more than good manners.... Civility is a state of mind. It reflects respect for your opponents and for the institutions you serve together.... This polarization will make civility in the next Congress more difficult – and more necessary – than ever.”

Arizona shooting: Seven times politics turned to threats or violence last year

Personal relationships over political party

Contributing to this polarization are a number of factors. One is that members of Congress simply don’t eat with one another anymore. There was a time when members made time to break bread together, which allowed for personal relationships to form that could transcend political orientation. Those relationships were a keystone to creating an atmosphere in Congress that valued an opposing perspective.

ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE: Arizona shooting: Don't blame Sarah Palin – get public schools to discuss politics

In mid-December, at the founding meeting of the No Labels movement, whose goal is to mitigate the damaging partisanship of politics in the United States today, former Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana recalled that when his father, Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh, also of Indiana, ran for re-election, Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois asked him how he could help Bayh get reelected. Dirksen understood the importance and the value of having someone good from the opposite party in Congress. In the present climate, one could never imagine Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offering to help re-elect Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) or Vermont’s Sen. Patrick Leahy (D).

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