There was an interesting column in The Oregonian this morning about the decline in civility in the U.S. Senate. Former Oregon senator Bob Packwood, who clearly had his own extracurricular problems but was, nonetheless, a longtime Senate stalwart -- and a Republican -- traced the origins of this decline to 1992, when then-Representative Newt Gingrich began a take-no-prisoners campaign for GOP control of Congress. Oregon's current junior senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, related that his experiences as an intern for former Senator Mark Hatfield -- a Republican! -- in the 1970s included a conviviality sadly lacking in today's U.S. Senate.
A lack of civility is not a necessarily partisan quality. As syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts aptly described the other day, it is a condition that has infected a growing percentage of American society. Speaking of politics specifically, it's equally possible to be a Republican jerk or a Democratic jerk. The problem lies in the fact that it appears to have become acceptable to be a jerk of any political stripe.
We are a country that is at war. We are a country experiencing a significant economic recession. We are a country with essential choices to make about the way we handle weighty matters ranging from immigration to education, foreign policy to caring for the most needy among us. And our elected national leaders cannot even have a civilized discussion on the Senate floor?
Something is seriously wrong here. As voters we have a responsibility to move beyond our own petty grievances and elect national leaders who appeal to what is best in us, not what is worst in us.
All Republicans are spineless obstructionists? Um, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham voted to approve Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court.
All Democrats are godless heathens? Well, Jeff Merkley happened to be in Yamhill County on a Sunday morning the fall before last when he was running for the Senate. He's Lutheran. He attended the morning service at my own church, Joyful Servant Lutheran -- a small church with a statistically insignificant number of voters in a fairly conservative town. Not, in short, a politically motivated meet-and-greet.
So: let's get over it. Political opinions are fine, and working on behalf of political ideals is not a problem. Incivility, lack of dialogue, and disregard for the essential humanity of the other side? That really, really is.