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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vinehout: "Creating a Culture of Civility"

Creating a Culture of Civility “Sure the economy is a concern,” said the woman at the door. “But what I want is for all of you to get along. Can’t you learn how to compromise?” Over and again I hear people asking politicians to get along and get things done. In the world of politics there is a culture of competition where winning at all cost is what’s most important. While this might work for the NFL, it’s not an effective way to run state government. There is a price to pay in a culture where winner takes all. Sometimes the vanquished becomes the victor and the tables are turned. The result is a seesawing of proposals and laws that conflict with each other. The obvious example is the recent court decision overturning Act 10, but other examples abound. People say they want leaders to compromise, but voters often reward elected leaders who do not. Especially lately, people elected some leaders who act in very uncompromising ways. Some of this action can be traced to the will of interest groups. My colleagues and I face groups from all sides. These groups are a part of the political process. They represent and gather money from people in our neighborhoods; doctors, farmers, business owners, all have interests to pursue in state politics. Other groups gather extensive resources from outside our state. The leaders of the organizations know the way to keep their organization going is to ‘win’ the game by bringing back to their members legislation they want passed. Woe to the lawmaker who reads the bill and says, “I’d like to make some changes,” or worse yet, writes his or her own bill on the topic. Lawmakers who successfully change a bill to reflect concerns brought by others are accused of “watering down” the bill. Interest groups work hard to get their members to contact the lawmaker to remove the offending amendment. This is part of our political process. The push and pull that takes place in the rowdy world of the statehouse will always happen. But what’s changed is the number of lawmakers who seem unwilling to compromise. Too seldom will lawmakers bring all sides to the table to sort out the details of how to make permanent change through compromise. There are leaders on both sides of the aisle who do act to find solutions that benefit all the public’s interest. Many demonize these leaders. Sometimes the attacks are not on the substance of policy but are personal. For a thousand years leaders and public figures have been the target of jest and humiliation. What’s changed is how quickly we sit down at a computer and fire off an email with the intensity of language we would never use in person. This happened recently to anchor Jennifer Livingston of WKBT-TV in La Crosse. Jennifer used a biting personal attack as a teachable moment and took to the air to decry cyber-bullying and encourage youth of all stripes to gain confidence to stand up to bullies. She received international attention because of her courage. Ms. Livingston’s response teaches all of us there is a better way to express ourselves. There is a level of respect all must maintain, even in the criticism of others. Those of us in the political world would be wise to heed her advice. Every one of us has a responsibility to help create a culture of civility. I receive a postcard regularly from a man in Milwaukee. I don’t know his name because he never signs it. But for a year and a half, he sent postcards, sometimes several per week, to my office and my home. The message on the postcard is always demeaning and often personal. To him I say, “Your words are cruel and unnecessary. They contribute to the very culture you despise. Please stop.” To the rest of our world I say, honor each other despite our differences. Every one of us can create a world in which we respect each other. Then maybe we can offer support even to the politician who works to bring compromise to the table. If you know someone who would like to be added to this distribution list, please let us know. If you wish to unsubscribe from this newsletter, reply with "Unsubscribe" in the subject line

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