Washington Watch: Uncivil politics has long history

LSU invaded Washington last week for the 2013 Breaux Symposium – named after retired U.S. Sen. John Breaux, D-La. — to help find a way toward “Making Congress Work: A Guide for Representatives, Senators and Citizens.”

The event was put on by the LSU Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University and the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress and featured speaking events such as, “Can’t we all get along? Restoring Civility and Bipartisanship to Congress.”

But University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst, who was one of the featured speakers, argued that incivility isn’t that bad now and that people — the public and politicians — really need to learn the “culture of argument” and how to balance passion with civility.

Congressional gridlock reigns and the approval rating of Congress routinely dips near 10 percent these days, but various speakers argued that hyperpartisanship is a bigger problem than a perceived lack of politeness in Washington.

“The popular narrative is that civility is at an all-time low,” Herbst said. “That could not be further from the truth.”

The 1850s featured multiple “bench-clearing brawls” in Congress, she said.

The peak likely came in 1856 when Rep. Preston Brooks, of South Carolina, went to the Senate floor and beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane, while Sumner was seated. The violence came shortly after Sumner gave a two-day anti-slavery speech that besmirched several slavery supporters.

Brooks’ punishment?

He resigned his seat and he received a $300 fine. He then became a hero figure in the South and received hundreds of canes as gifts from admirers. He was promptly re-elected with ease and, in a strange ironic twist, he died of a sudden illness at age 37 right before his new congressional term was set to begin.

Herbst noted that Congress often turned “very ugly” during the eras of the Great Depression, the House Un-American Activities investigations and the Vietnam conflict.

“We really are a bunch of babies,” Herbst said. “We really need a thicker skin.”

A few months ago, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, directed the “F-word” toward Senate Majority President Harry Reid, D-Nev., during a private discussion.

“So what?” Herbst said. “Everyone has a fragile self-esteem.” Things like calling President Barack Obama a socialist Muslim from Africa go too far, she said, but Congress rarely operates today on such a level.

“We don’t know how to argue; we don’t know how to listen,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of patience.”

Former Rep. Jim Coyne, R-Pa., cited former President John Quincy Adams, who was a Harvard University professor of rhetoric and oratory years before he became president.

The concept of using classical training to learn how to persuade people in civil ways is virtually nonexistent today, Coyne said.

Part of the problem is people too often being surrounded by people who share their views and avoiding sensitive topics when they are in other situations, said Frances Lee, a University of Maryland professor of government and politics.

“People don’t have a good understanding of just how diverse the country is,” Lee said. “Democracy isn’t pretty.”

Politicians and academics also complained about a lack of civic and government education in schools and the various voting registration and closed primary voting systems that end up making voters feel “disenfranchised” and “irrelevant” in “no man’s land,” as Breaux said.

Former Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., who teaches at George Washington University, took it a step further.

“The average understanding of just basic civic understanding is just shockingly low,” Kennedy said, calling it “embarrassing” for the nation.

But Breaux also made sure to blame current members of Congress, especially when it comes to their travel-heavy schedules and the lack of time they spend getting to know each other.

“When you don’t know someone, it’s very easy to get mad at them,” Breaux said. “It’s a lot harder to stab someone in the back when you had dinner with them the night before.”

Too much of the focus is on winning elections at any cost, rather than on accomplishing anything, he said.

“You want to make sure you don’t end up in gridlock,” Breaux said. “Maintain your principles, but find a way to get something done.”

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.