Civility and Bipartisanship: the Power of Playing Nice

Civil discourse doesn't mean wimping out, and crossing the aisle can get you shot at from both sides. But it's the best way to get important things done.
by | January 29, 2014

I see nothing wrong with being a partisan, as I have been for my entire adult life. But if one is going to last in government and get important things done, it's going to be because of building relationships of trust and respect on both sides of the aisle. After serving as an elected official for 35 years, my advice to politically aspiring young people is to conduct themselves not only with civility and moderation but also, whenever possible, with bipartisanship.

Pollsters tell us what we intuitively know -- that Americans are sick unto death of nasty campaigns and toxic talking heads and government leaders' frequent inability to work together civilly to solve problems that have never been more grave. The Founders, most of whom took a dim view of organized political parties, definitely expected better of us.

Even in Washington, D.C., in the debate over federal spending, there recently have been some examples of brave bipartisanship and creative problem-solving. I'm certainly hoping this will continue. Crossing the aisle and governing in the middle can get you shot at from both ends of the political spectrum, but often it is exactly what we need for effective and sustainable change. Many change agents can tell you battle stories and show you the scars they still have from some of those encounters, including friendly fire from members of their own parties.

Civility and civil discourse don't mean wimping out or not standing for something. Indeed, I've seen outstanding examples of leaders who are civil and inclusive and at the same time visionary and powerful forces for change. But working as a Republican elected official in one of Washington State's most Democratic counties showed me the practical benefits and power of working with courthouse colleagues of the opposite party. Some lifelong friendships were forged in those days. Long before people knew the phrase "post-partisanship," we were doing it.

As secretary of state, with a statewide "bully pulpit," I could see even more the possibility -- and the necessity -- of forming alliances with county auditors from both parties as we worked on improving our state's election system. As a Republican, I've often worked hand-and-glove with Democratic governors and legislators to achieve common goals that transcend partisanship.

Public support is essential. How do you get anything done without the consent of the governed? Cynicism and disrespect lead to disengagement of the voters and besmirch the reputation of public service as a noble calling. My hope, of course, is that this downward spiral of incivility and ineffectiveness can be reversed, and that the public will see this.

Diversity of thought and different styles of communication are to be celebrated. There is a time and a place to play to our differences and our uniqueness. But there also is a time to put aside divisions and work together for the commonweal.

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