Luncheon, Civility, and Other Anachronisms

I had a wonderfully restorative lunch today with a good friend. We talked about many things, some quite contentious; we agreed on lot, disagreed on a few, remained civil always.

Part of my enjoyment was due to the fact that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to openly and candidly discuss and civilly disagree about matters of interest and contention with people of shared good will. Our country has been purposefully cleaved by people whose interests are served by a hostile, mistrustful, and radically bifurcated country.

I’m reminded of this by Olympia Snow’s announcement that she will be leaving her seat in the Senate because it had become too shallowly self-serving and too uncivil. (My thoughts about her departure are here.) I’m also thinking about the death of Andrew Breitbart, who brought uncivil personal attack of his enemies, both online and in the flesh, to a high art form. And, to be fair, I also have to mention groups like Code Pink, who think nothing of shouting down and otherwise proudly interrupting people they disagree with, even during sessions of Congress and other civic functions. Or recent political campaigns based on demeaning and vile tactics that make Americans lose faith, not just in particular candidates, but also in our political system, and each other. (Thank you for this legacy, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, et al.)

The result is a society more dysfunctional and less humane, one in which we’re split into tribes, and very mistrustful of the other.

Some years ago, I had a long philosophical conversation with a colleague and friend who happens to be a conservative Republican. Our talk crisscrossed many subjects, as conversations will do, at one point landing on immigration.

Eventually, I talked about the experience of my grandparents, who came to America virtually penniless (My grandfather arrived with $10 in his pocket; not hyperbole, I’ve seen the ship’s manifest at the Ellis Island museum. My post about him is here.), about their belief in America, concept and reality, and our family’s history of progress here.

And I choked up, as I’m wont to do when I think and speak about them.

My friend told me it was the first time he’d ever even considered the possibility that a liberal Democrat (me) might just also be patriotic; still among the saddest sentences I’ve ever heard spoken.

Adio, Olympia. Goodbye, Civility.

Why does someone leave a safe Senate seat? If you’re Maine’s Olympia Snow, it might be because you’re good and sick of the direction American government is moving, or, more precisely, the way our elected officials increasingly behave while they conduct the public’s business.

She had first assumed elective office in 1973, a turbulent (think Watergate) yet more civil time in American politics. Officeholders from both parties talked and worked with each other, even in public, to get things done for the broad public benefit. There was general agreement about the necessity of a functioning government. And few, if any, candidates or officials called political opponents agents of Satan, or anything.

By the time Snow was first elected to the US Senate, in 1994, there had been some erosion of civility but, in general, senators behaved like the members of the ultra-exclusive club they were. The Clinton impeachment was a turning point, by all accounts. Things got nasty, got personal, went nuclear. It wasn’t enough to get your bills through, wasn’t enough to stop the other sides bills. You had to diminish your opponent.

Washington politics became fighting to the death.

These days, politicians aren’t only uncooperative, they’re openly hostile to each other. They insist their opponents’ evil with religious fervor. Yesterday, Olympia Snow, the senior senator from Maine, declared she’d finally had enough.

She will leave her seat in America’s highest deliberative legislative body, and leave the verbal bomb-throwing to others. I’ll miss her intelligence, rationality and civility. Her departure is a sign that our country is surrendering to its worst impulses.