Legislative Report: Civility alive and well in many areas
By Rep. Kim Koppelman
Most observers would conclude that civility is a commodity somewhat lacking today. That’s especially evident when watching the goings on in Washington, D.C. Whether you pay close or casual attention, whether you’ve been watching for weeks or years, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that something is wrong when such an atmosphere of conflict seems to rule the day.
Concern over this state of affairs is far from a hand-wringing, “Can’t we all just get along?” attitude, which implies a peace-at-all-costs mindset characterized by capitulation or sacrifice of one’s principles. Quite the contrary, both history and an understanding of basic human relations demonstrate that the ability to accomplish anything often hinges upon the ability to work with others in an atmosphere of mutual respect and decorum. There’s not much incentive to work with one whom you consider a mortal enemy.
In government or society, we must learn to respect and work with one another without being at each other’s throats, if anything productive is to be accomplished.
Some would say that conflict in our federal government is simply a reflection of a less civil society. Maybe so, but that’s no reason to be resigned to it. My experience, both in North Dakota, and nationally, gives me hope.
Growing up in rural and small town North Dakota, I learned to respect others, to be polite, to empathize with others’ opinions or circumstances. Certainly, that didn’t mean that I always agreed with others, but the manner in which we chose to disagree was something remarkable. It was respectful, gracious, and honorable.
Many of these traits remain alive and well in the North Dakota Legislature. That’s a good thing and it speaks well of our state and region.
Having the opportunity to chair the Council of State Governments also gave me a glimpse of civility, across the nation. That’s encouraging. So prevalent was the mutual respect shown that I soon discovered that I’d known some friends—legislators and other state government officials from other states—for years before even knowing which political party they were a part of.
The waning of common courtesy in some quarters has, in fact, been recognized as such a problem that CSG has made civility a nation-wide focus.
The misconception today seems to be the idea that one cannot be a person of conviction and still be civil. Long-standing American traits like kindness and civility are seen as signs of weakness or lack of conviction. Compromise or camaraderie, on any level, with those with whom you disagree is seen as retreat.
That certainly wasn’t the case, in American history. Our nation’s Founders understood that finding common ground was essential, but that it didn’t involve sacrificing their core beliefs. Thomas Jefferson put it this way, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock!”
At one of the least promising moments of the Constitutional Convention, when it appeared that sharp differences would prevent our Constitution from ever being composed, Benjamin Franklin rose and implored the assembly to agree to regularly pray together and to ask God’s help in their task. They found common ground—their faith (even though they came from very different denominations and traditions)—which helped them succeed in their historic task. This also led to the practice which continues today, both in Congress and in state legislatures, of opening with prayer.
As North Dakotans, we can all be proud of the civility with which our government conducts its business. It’s a fine reflection on our state and its people. If we all commit ourselves to being civil and when we can’t agree, as is inevitable, to remain respectful and “disagree without being disagreeable” our state and nation will be better for it.
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