Why politicians must play ball

After the shooting at a GOP baseball practice, lawmakers showed remarkable civility. Here are active steps that can keep it going.

AP Photo
Rep. Mike Doyle, Democrat from Penn., left, and Rep. Joe Barton, Republican from Texas, managers of the congressional baseball teams, reflect on the June 14 shooting at a practice for the Republicans where a gunman wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and two Capitol Police officers in Alexandria, Va.

The attempted killing of Republican lawmakers on a baseball field near Washington has united members of Congress in a way rarely seen in recent years. Many praised each other’s consoling responses. Others vowed to temper the rhetoric of personal attacks that may have incited the June 14 shooting. And some revived the notion of creating friendships across the aisle despite the regular verbal combat over issues.

This unusual moment of common reflection should not be lost. Civility in politics must be an active quality, one that needs constant nurturing. This can counter the disrespect rising in politics that has begun to seep into workplaces, friendships, families, and religious bodies. To uplift civic life, citizens and their elected leaders must focus more on their enduring bonds than their temporary differences over policies.

One heartening example of nurturing civility is the fact that the Congressional Baseball Game was not canceled after the shooting. For 108 years, this sport activity has been one of the few places where lawmakers of different parties could get to know each other as regular folk, building trust that might then open doors for bipartisan cooperation. Other joint activities range from a Senate prayer group to a gym that members of both parties use.

In January, the newest members of the House of Representatives signed a letter of commitment to civility – in large part to counter the ill will of the 2016 elections. The new members vowed not to disparage each other. So far they have tried to maintain that pledge.

At the state level, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has been offering courses on civility to legislators and others for a few years. In the Idaho statehouse last year, Democrats and Republicans who took the course agreed to organize social events to help them go beyond partisan labels and better understand their shared motives for public service. Several legislators asked their staff to come up with bills that could find bipartisan support.

For decades, a visible model of civility in Washington was the friendship of two Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia. Their close ties allowed a rapport that may have softened their differences in court rulings. “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people,” Justice Scalia told “60 Minutes.”

One reason for the success of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, according to scholar Derek Webb of Stanford Law School, was the extensive social interaction among the delegates before and during the event. “Delegates like [James] Madison and [Ben] Franklin themselves suggested that, without this foundation, the Convention may not have even been able to last a few weeks, much less four months,” he writes.

In a survey after the 2016 election by KRC Research, 65 percent of Americans supported the idea that civility starts with citizens – by encouraging friends, family, and colleagues to be kind. If that behavior were to become more commonplace, the type of incivility that often leads to violence would find little place to flourish.

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