Returning from the 100th Anniversary celebration for the League of Women Voters in San Antonio, I thought about the relentless struggle of the women who fought for the right to vote,–something we take for granted today—but many forget to exercise. Now the League works to register America’s voters and ensure we have the same right the women fought years for and finally received when the 19th Amendment was ratified by 36 states in 1920.
What does voting have to do with “civility”? One answer might be: everything. The ability to conduct a fair election without verbal use of people, places, or things has become a challenge. One might be tempted to chalk it up to the last election cycle, but if we’re honest, we’ve been sliding along the slippery slope of bad manners and “saying almost anything to get elected” for some time now. Window dressing, painting the situation over with a fake azure blue sky and white fluffy clouds will not solve our problem.
A dose of civility could be in order. Some say they learned how to behave in public from their parents—how to introduce themselves, pass the plate to the person on the right, how to be excused from the table, listening before breaking in with your two cents. And saying nothing if you have nothing “nice” to say. In Texas and other Southern states, children learn respect when they’re taught to respond to adults: “Yes, Mam,” or “No, Sir”– a practice that irritated me at first, thinking it pertained just to elders. Now I’m proud that this act of civility continues to hold, at least here in Texas.
Many of America’s seniors remember “Civics” class as the place we studied about mayors, governors, and presidents, acted out the steps in passing a bill through Congress, and often learned that our public schools, parks, and rec centers were paid for mainly by state or local taxes. Now that these classes are gone, basic knowledge about government has disappear from many states, making it much easier for shifty candidates to sway the opinion of unschooled and sometimes lazy Americans, who do not double check politicians’ statements or question their promises.
Yet demonizing the opposition does not serve our purposes. India’s former leader Mahatma Gandhi reminded his followers: “We must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies.” That serves only to strengthen their resolve, doing nothing to bring us together after the election.
When Being Civil was the Civil Thing to Do
If we look back to another time of political stress prior to the Civil War, we find surprising examples where people of opposing political perspectives were willing to help each other in time of need. When Jefferson Davis (future President of the Confederacy) served as Secretary of War under President Pierce, Varina Davis became critically ill late in her second pregnancy. A paralyzing snowstorm hit Washington, preventing her nurse from reaching her. New York Senator William Seward, who strongly opposed slavery and would serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War, picked up the nurse in a horse-drawn sleigh pulled by his own fine horses and delivered her to the Davis residence. Both survived and Varina, who would become a journalist after the war, had three more children with Davis.
The Founders’ descendants and their families, struggled at times to maintain decorum with opposing politicians. Firebrand Abby Adams, married to Charles Francis Adams– the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams–became a popular guest in Washington with many political friends, including staunch anti-slavery proponent, Charles Sumner, prior to the war.
Abby accepted invitations from popular Washington hostess and Southern sympathizer Rose Greenhow, whose views were well known from her articles in the New York Herald. Mrs. Adams voiced her own views at one of Greenhow’s soirees and “waded right into the hottest political topic of the day,” declaring John Brown of Harper’s Ferry a “holy saint and martyr.” Rose, equally quick on the draw, shot back, “he was a traitor and met a traitor’s doom.” Such was dinner conversation in the late 1850s. Gossip moved along at a dramatic clip. Widow Greenhow would spend time in the Old Capitol Prison, which held Confederate spies.
While no American forts are under fire or cannons lit today, civil words are at a premium and distaste for the actions of an opponent are turning politics from a natural component of life into a blood sport, where the vitriol saps voters’ interest in participation. Democracy’s future waivers in a country where 59 percent of the people are turned off by politics and the number of voters declines. (2017 Civility study by Weber Shandwick Powell Tate and KR Research)
Too easily we forget that the Constitution revered by Americans grew out of The Great Compromise of 1787, imperfect in its own way, but a point from which the nation could begin. Those at the Constitutional Convention kept their eyes on the nation they wanted to create. More than two centuries later, the stakes have risen with a population that has grown from 2.8 million (1780) to 329 million people (2019), bringing a complexity of education, transportation, health care, commerce, agricultural, social service, and government issues beyond the scope of Colonists.
Taking the first steps
How do we start to roll back from the brink? In Maine, Craig Foster began a “Make Shift Coffee House,” where people with opposing views meet to learn from others and drink good coffee. Citizens for Reviving Civility in Arizona believes that listening to others is the key. Reflection, not reaction, works well to avoid debating issues and eventually move on to solving more difficult problems over time.
Better Angels, a national citizens’ movement works to reduce polarization by bringing liberals and conservatives together, face-to-face, to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, and teach practical skills for communicating across political differences. (More than a thousand people have participated in over thirty states).
Founder David Blankenhorn says the group’s goal is not to get people to change their views, but to get people to listen well to one another. “If you listen well,” he explains, “and if you try to understand—and if you’re confident that people are going to listen to you—you become a human being, friendship develops despite the political differences, and the rancor goes down.”
In Duluth, Minnesota, Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project began in 2003 to address political tensions caused by economic decline, plants closing, and rising anxiety. Proponents were quick to point out it was not a campaign to end disagreements, but one to improve public discourse by reminding the community of the basic principles of respect. They are inclusive, welcoming all groups of citizens working for the common good. The group looks for opportunities to agree, encouraging participants to avoid contradicting others’ because they can, to accept individual responsibility by looking in the mirror before pointing fingers at others.
Phillip Browne, vice president-communications, offered tips to help restore civility in the National Notary Association’s Notary Bulletin:
• Seek out a variety of news sources with different perspectives
• Allow others to speak and listen closely to build mutual understanding
• Seek common ground in your conversations
• Avoid rumors and don’t jump to conclusions or assume you know another person’s
perspective or next word will be.
Wehner in The Death of Politics mentions Calvin Coolidge, who warned his countrymen not to just ward off the dangerous elements that threatened government, “Our hope lies in developing what is good.” Interestingly enough in that 2017 survey of Civility 94 percent reported they “always” acted in the interest of “civility,” which may indicate we are almost there or have even farther to go than we thought! Here’s to drinking coffee or tea together, toasting “civility” . . . then working slowly to come back from the brink.
Peter Wehner’s book, The Death of Politics (New York: HarperOne, 2019) inspired this column and included stories not just about America’s problems, but ways we can work together to solve them.
“New York Senator William Seward picked up the nurse..” Cokie Roberts, Capital Dames, (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), p. 59. The week after Roberts died it seemed appropriate to remind myself this NPR trailblazer also studied and wrote about the roles of strong American women in history .
“Holy saint and martyr,” Ibid. p. 69
“Our friends who positively hate him…” p. 76
Better Angels Help Communities Ease Political Tensions,” CBS This Morning, March 26, 2018, on YouTube, https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mLDgtUuK34
In Duluth, Speak Your Peace, Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, “Speak Youth Peace: A Civility Project,” http://dsaspeakyourpeace.org/index.html
Civility tips from P.M. Forni’s book: Choosing Civility.
Phillip Browne, National Notary Association’s Notary Bulletin, October 2017 Members routinely notarize documents for clients of all backgrounds, across all issues.
“How to Teach Civics in School,” The Economist, July 6, 2017,