The National Debate On Civility And The Vermont Way

Senator Leahy's Guest Column In The Burlington Free Press

A national discussion has begun about civility in politics and American life.  That can be healthy and constructive, if we want it to be.  President Obama wisely cautions against letting the tragedy of Tucson become fodder for just another tit-for-tat verbal firefight.

No one except perhaps the shooter knows what lit the fuse to the Tucson tragedy, or whether the superheated rhetoric of the recent campaign in Arizona was a contributing factor.  But the problem of the erosion of civility is about more than direct calls to violence.  Political demonizing is poisoning our political atmosphere.  We all have a growing sense that this is not the America that most of us have known.

When I was growing up in Montpelier my father told me the story of FDR’s visit to town.  Vermont had not voted for Roosevelt, and feelings against the New Deal ran strong.  My dad stood on the sidewalk to watch FDR’s open-air car drive by, and he stood next to the head of a leading corporate citizen who had made no bones of his disapproval of Roosevelt’s policies.  Yet when FDR passed by, this businessman took off his hat and placed it over his heart.  My father asked why he, of all people, was honoring FDR.  “I did not take off my hat to FDR,” he said.  “I am showing respect to the President.”

Just a few years ago we Vermonters had a long and spirited debate on one of the most polarizing issues imaginable at the time – civil unions.  Vermont’s debate was remarkable for the civility we showed to each other.  I am so proud as a Vermonter for the example our state offered to the rest of the country.

In a free society – the society we always want America to be – government should not and must not restrain free expression.  But with freedom come responsibilities.  The seething rhetoric has gone too far.  The demonizing of opponents, on the right or the left, of government, and of public service has gone too far.  Our politics have become incendiary and we all share the responsibility for lowering the temperature. 

It is easy to appeal to resentment, distrust, selfishness and hate.  Leaders should appeal instead to our better angels.  And when common ground remains elusive, we must respect the rights of others to hold and express their own views and beliefs.  

Deadly threats are not uncommon in public life, and I have had them both as a Vermont prosecutor and as a senator.  My staff and my family and I went through the strains of an attack shortly after 9/11 when a letter laced with deadly anthrax was mailed to me.  Postal workers who came in contact with that letter died.  But I still feel perfectly safe at home in Vermont, one of the safest states in the nation.  I know our local and state police in Vermont have procedures for public meetings in Vermont, and I am very satisfied with what they do.

We must not allow any assault on representative democracy to succeed in thwarting or muting citizens’ access to their elected representatives.   I do not want to see members of Congress all walking around with security.  It can isolate officeholders from the people they represent.

Vermont offers an example to follow.  Americans, whatever their beliefs, wherever they are on the political spectrum, can freely and fully debate, discuss, disagree, and decide, while resisting the urge to attack others’ motives just because they disagree.  There are no easy answers to many of the most pressing problems facing America, and there never have been.  Not during WWI or WWII.  Not during the Great Depression.  But Americans then came together and sought the best answers possible to make this a greater and stronger country.  Don’t we owe that to our children and our grandchildren?  We need to step back from the rhetoric and start going to reality.  We need to stop with the symbols and go to substance.

This is a great and wonderful country.  We are a beacon to the rest of the world.  Let’s make sure that beacon is a little bit brighter than it has been. 

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