Sunday, November 26, 2023

Congress and Society needs Standards, Rules, Decorum, and Manners.

by Rod Williams, Nov. 19, 2023- Recently I posted here and here about the feud between Kevin
McCarthy and Tennessee's Tim Burchett that may or may have not turned physical. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan reports that this is not the only time this charge has been made against McCarthy. She writes that Former Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), in a memoir published earlier this year, wrote that Mr. McCarthy had twice gotten physical with him in almost exactly the same way. 

This is astounding and embarrassing. This, however, is not the only indication of lack of decorum and of incivility in Congress. See this excerpt from Noonan's piece:

Also this week, in a public hearing, Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R., Okla.) challenged Teamsters President Sean O’Brien to a fight. Mr. O’Brien had gotten lippy on Twitter, calling Mullin a “moron” and “full of s—.” Why not fight it out here, at the hearing? Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) stopped it—“God knows the American people have enough contempt for politics, let’s not make it worse.” Afterward Mr. Mullin told an Oklahoma podcaster how he fights and what we missed. “By the way, I’m not afraid of biting.” “I’ll bite 100%. In a fight, I’m gonna bite. I’ll do anything, I’m not above it. And I don’t care where I bite, by the way.”

She goes on to report of other incidents of representatives calling each other "corrupt" and "liar."  Marjorie Taylor Green called Rep. Lauren Boebert (R., Colo.), “a little bitch” on the House floor. Noonan reports that Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) pleaded guilty to falsely pulling a fire alarm in a Capitol Hill office building, which had to be evacuated. Prior to pleading guilty to the charge, he had denied it and compared his Republican critics to Nazis.

What is this, high school? What is going on?  There have been other times in our history when Congress was intemperate. In 1850 in a debate over slavery, heated debate led to name calling and one Senator pulled a gun on another, but the senator was subdued before anyone was shot. In 1856 in another debate over slavery one senator used his cane to beat another senator unconscious. And there have been other brawls, but not that often.  What we are experiencing now is quite unusual for modern times.

Part of what is going on I think is that Congress is representative of society. We live in such a polarized age that people tend to think of people with a different view as evil rather than just wrong or someone with a different point of view.  Compromise is seen as betrayal and lack of fidelity to principles. One should not compromise with evil, is the reasoning. Not only should one not compromise or seek common ground, but one should not even associate with the enemy. 

I also think that part of what may be responsible for the intense partisanship is that members of Congress don't get to know each other as much as they did in the past. Most congress people fly in just in time for sessions and fly home for the weekend. It is reported that there is much less of a Washington culture than in the past.  People who don't spend time together, probably do not get to the point of liking each other.  If you personally like someone it is easier to seek common ground. It is also more likely that you can argue your position without demonizing the other person. We know that there is a great sorting going on in America. People live in clusters of people who share their values. I have a close relative who is liberal and belongs to a long-standing book club. She told me that one of the criteria for accepting a new member was that the potential member had to be a Democrat. I think that same attitude exists in Congress. Fewer Republicans and Democrats know each other. 

Not only do Republicans and Democrats not know each other, they hardly share the same society.  I am old enough to remember when the talk around the water cooler was how funny Johnny Carson was the night before.  Now, there are fewer things people have in common. They don't share the same comedy and entertainment. Sports may be common bonding factor, but there are few such things that cross a partisan divide.  And, people certainly do not get the same information. Major newspapers have declined and people consume news that expresses a point of view with which they agree.  A person who watches Fox News is not going to believe something reported on MSNBC and vice versa. 

Also, the role of social media and 24-hour cable news has changed people's behavior. Reasoned discussion does not get noticed and this means there is less of it.  Action and loudness and inflammatory rhetoric gets one noticed and behavior reflects this. I also think Donald Trump poisoned the well. He brought an entertaining reality TV showmanship to politics. He made bullying and name calling an art form. His behavior paid off and he has a lot of emulators. 

Also, I think, more than anything there has been a change in our society regarding manners and respect and decorum. Starting in the late 60's the attitude of "let it all hang out" came to the forefront and this has only grown since then.  Telling people what you really think became a virtue.  Manners were seen as hypocrisy and formality was seen as phony. "Get real," "tell it like it is," and "don't sugar coat it" became admonitions as ways a person should conduct themselves. I think it is this attitude that can lead to bullying, name calling and punches. 

A few months ago in Tennessee we had an incident in which three members of the State House refused to follow the rules and took a bull horn and led chants from the House floor. When expelled for their behavior, they became national celebrities and were hailed as heroes, even being honored at the White House.  If this is the kind of behavior that gets honored, this is the kind of behavior of which you will have more. Taking to the floor and leading a mob is not democracy. Democracy does not work without rules and boundaries and decorum.  

Many speeches in Congress in which one is going to disagree with a colleague begin with, "My good friend from the great state of _______, said ...."  That is not being phony. It is setting an attitude of respect.  

I even think the way one dresses reflects respect for the institution and office one seeks or holds. It is not uncommon for people to even show up at funerals and weddings dressed like they are going to the gym.  Durning the recent mayor's race, at one of the mayoral forums, of the crowded nine or ten people on stage only one of the women looked well-groomed and professional and only one of the men wore a necktie. Several of them looked like they had just come in from doing yard work.  I think the relaxation in office work attire from the days when one always had to wear a tie is a good thing. When working, I liked "casual Friday." However, I want my mayor, minister, and banker, and Congressman to wear a tie.  The Senate almost changed its dress code so Senator Fetterman could wear his hoddie and gym shorts, but common sense prevailed, and the change was not made. At least for now, that small degree of respect for the institution remains. 

Society and Congress needs to endorse standards and rules and decorum, and manners.  Saying "please," "excuse me," and "thank you," is the lube that keeps people civil.  Being slow to take offense is a matter of habit and does not imply weakness. Listening and trying to understand the other point of view is not a violation of one's principles. Some points of view do not fit on a bumper sticker or Facebook meme and one should not try to reduce all arguments to such.  Being thoughtful is not being wishy-washy. Having rules by which to proceed in a debate or conduct a meeting is not anti-democratic. One needs rules to play a game and one needs rules to conduct business. The absense of the rules is mob rule and leads to chaos. 

I do not want to return to a time of extreme formality, but we need rules and decorum and respect.  If rules, and decorum, and politeness, and manner, and respect are hypocrisy, hypocrisy is a virtue. 

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