Bad behavior and democracy

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don't stand in the doorway

Don't block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled ...

- Bob Dylan

Just in case anyone needs a reminder, the U.S. Congress in the 1960s was as stuck in its ways as it is today. Conservative Democrats from the South and Midwest were a roadblock to important social and civil rights legislation, including voting rights and healthcare. The difference was that, at least in public, a superficial courtesy prevented politicians from eviscerating one another on television or in print.

We could sure use some superficial courtesy now.

Although the nation re-elected Barack Obama, it also returned to the House and Senate the Paul Ryans, Michele Bachmanns and John Boehners of the GOP right. On the "far side" of the right we have people who rant and rave, call other people names, and are so caught up in their partisanship that they would not take one small step to resolve our nations urgent fiscal crisis because it might make the Democrats and, in particular, President Obama look good.

The castigation of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is an example. Major figures in the GOP blame him for the president's re-election. They are unhappy he went for a ride on Marine One, the president's helicopter, and that he was in a photo with the president. Christie had it right though: in a crisis, New Jersey's residents came before politics and Obama was mobilizing the federal system to help hard-hit Jersey.

Bad behavior has been a part of our politics from the beginning. Adams and Jefferson hated one another. In the period leading up the Civil War a southern senator assaulted a northern senator on the chamber's floor. Cartoonists drew pictures of Abraham Lincoln that made him look like an ape.

One of the implications of bad behavior and discourteousness is the way it looks overseas. Recently, a man from Nigeria told me that because the rest of the world looks up to the U.S. as a model for democracy, the behavior of our elected officials sends a bad message. He said politicians in his nation were modeling their behavior on that of our elected representatives.

Another implication is the way eviscerating dialog in the Senate has driven away long-time members, such as Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. As a moderate Republican she became appalled by the inability of her colleagues to behave in a civil way to one another. Do we run the risk that over time our federal legislators will become less and less civil because those who find it unappealing don't run for office?

As one of the great and earliest experiments in self-government, do we run the risk that brass-knuckle politics will lead to a government in perpetual chaos and ultimately the disintegration of our nation?

It is when governments become paralyzed by factions that nations turn to strong leaders who put power into a few hands.

Charles R. Putney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. He lives in Bennington.


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