After the Arizona shooting, the civility movement sees tipping point
Calls for unity in response to the Arizona shooting are seen as an opportunity for the civility movement to tackle partisan rancor.
Exchanges on the House floor were growing heated and vicious. Cooperation between parties had ground to a halt – and had already led to a shutdown of government. Worried about the future of Congress itself, 86 members sent a letter to the speaker requesting an urgent, bipartisan retreat to focus on one thing: building civility.Skip to next paragraph
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Laura Chasin, founder of the Public Conversations Project, helped facilitate discussions at that 1997 congressional retreat in Hershey, Pa., and describes a “very moving” scene. Members were asked how the acrimony in public life affected them. “And the stories that came out,” she says, “oh, my.” One congressman from the Southwest, “with tears streaming down his face,” Ms. Chasin recalls, said he’d gotten into politics to help people, but found himself in town-hall meetings “just gritting his teeth. The abuse had become so horrible.”
Now, 15 years later, it seems the tone in Washington – and around the country – is, if possible, even more divisive and ugly. Last summer, with a stagnant economy and emotions over the health-care reform bill raging, some members wound up canceling town-hall meetings altogether because they were deteriorating into shouting matches.
And while hostile rhetoric may not have been a factor in the alleged assassination attempt in Tucson of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, it was an issue that she herself had made a priority. Her widely reported e-mail sent to Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state, Trey Grayson, the day before she was wounded in a mass shooting is a clear indictment of the problem. Congratulating him on being named president of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, she added: “After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation. I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”
In the immediate aftermath of Ms. Giffords’s shooting, these divisions have again been on display, as some partisans on the right and left have pointed fingers and accused one another of unfairly assigning blame.
“That is precisely what is wrong with our dialogue,” Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale University and author of “The Violence of Peace,” observed in an e-mail interview. “Everything that happens, from the trivial to the tragic, is viewed across the spectrum as simply another opportunity to bash the opposition.”