One of the benefits of President George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior is that it likely set a standard for behavior in Congress that has so far stood the test of time. Having seen firsthand and by video episodes some of the rancor and outright riot in the British House of Commons, the Canadian Parliament, and the Taiwanese legislature among others, an outburst was not totally unexpected. Nonetheless, given its unprecedented nature [all three major TV news channels commented on the outburst], it was dismaying to see the “You Lie” comment by Republican Congressman Joe Wilson in last night’s presentation before Congress by President Obama.
Now judging by the comments of Don Wolfensberger, a Congressional employee who had worked in and observed the House of Representatives for decades, George Washington’s civility has been put to the test in recent years. Mr. Wolfensberger notes:
“Most observers would agree that the tone of Congress in the 1980s and 1990s had become more bitter, partisan, and personal than was remembered from the 1960s and 1970s—notwithstanding the upheavals over civil rights, Vietnam, and Watergate during those decades. And that was certainly my observation as a staff member. That trend continues today as the fire-works, blowups, and walkouts leading-up to the August recess attest.”
In his analysis, Mr Wolfensberger attributes the growing rancor in Congress to a continual ramp up of partisanship in all of the affairs of Congress. Even retreats designed to reduce tensions and increase family contacts among all members faltered and then discontinued altogether. Mr Wolfensberger also saw incivility increase when there was a change in control of Congress – as former committee chairmanships and other privileges were lost and turned over to the new ruling party. Those out of power became more strident for the first year or more.
I would add another factor. The Democratic party under President Bill Clinton has engaged a philosophy of continual campaigning throughout the presidency. On the other side, the Republican party has embraced a Politics of Fear predicated on attack tactics in which smear, innuendo, and half-truths rule the roost depending on the majority of the electorates’ disinterest, distrust, and dysfunctional ignorance of governmental affairs. This wicked combination has made Severe Partisanship a prerequisite for survival in Congress and Politics. Its sort of a perverse reversal of the New Hampshire state motto. On Capitol Hill, “Live Free or Die” has become “Revile Freely or Die”.
This may mark the tipping point as the US cedes power, likely to Southeast Asia, but inevitably elsewhere in the World. Simply put there are a range of Wicked Problems confronting the US which, if not handled properly will ultimately cause it to cede World leadership. The US Financial community has already made a big down payment on Concession. If the US intends to contend for continuing World Leadership, that endeavor will demand the highest levels of good decision making and management – handling worldwide problems: energy and resource shortages, renewable environment limits plus climate change problems; confronting the loss of economic power and advantage to India, China and the rest of the World; getting the rest of the World to no longer freeload on terrorism; avoiding nuclear proliferation; controlling obesity, pollution, and other health-related pandemics; and most crucially living within a much smaller resource and population growth footprint.
But how can good decision making and management proceed when the ability to even address let alone solve these problems is encumbered with a politics of fear, smear and rabid partisanship. So Joe Wilson says the attack was spontaneous and unpremeditated and has apologized. Unfortunately, the politics of fear, smear and rabid partisanship cannot claim the same innocence. It has been premeditated. It has slowly but surely become the US political norm. The US electorate will have to demand a lot better – or Live to See its World Leadership Die.