Sunday, June 19, 2011

Talking to each other

By Bill Kraus

Everyone I know and everyone I talk to or who talks to me complains loud and long about the radicalization of the political discourse. Without exception the question, “Don’t these people talk to each other?” is always raised. The answer, of course, is “No.”

The reaction ranges from disdain to horror.

The people in a position to do something about this sad state of affairs are either deaf or are not talking to the people who are talking to me.

I do not dismiss the possibility that I am talking to the wrong people, that there are people who think politicians, to be effective, should hate each other and that discourse is dangerous because it leads to compromise and weakens the resolve to do the “right” thing.

Is this a majority view? If it is, we are doomed.

I object.

A respected political leader’s response to my objection and lament suggested that I am a relic. I disagreed. I prefer to think that those of us who believe that politics is an honorable trade and that listening to others’ ideas and forging compromises is an art that should not be lost or disdained are role models not relics.

My own political role models are a diverse mix. To name a few, how about....

Mel Laird (R-Wis) and John Fogarty (D-RI) whose work in the Congress led to the creation of the National Institute of Health and the Communicative Disease Center.

Governors Gaylord Nelson and Warren Knowles who were the choices of two different parties and who both put conservation and a “green” stamp on Wisconsin before most other states knew what the word meant.

Tony Earl (when he was the Democratic leader of the State Assembly) and Bob Knowles (who was the Republican Majority Leader of the State Senate) who dined together almost every week.

More recently I lucked into a meeting between Democrat Jon Erpenbach and Republican Mike Ellis when they were working together trying to find a way to put a lid on a couple of other things people I talk to agree about: long campaigns and big spending.

The era I want back was plenty contentious. The disagreements were serious. The debaters’ objectives were different often to the point of being irreconcilable.

What was different then was that the partisans talked to each other and respected the system and what their adversaries had done to achieve the offices they held.

Chicago Cubs hall of famer Ryne Sandberg characterized this arena effect when he was asked how he felt about the people he played against and the game they played. “I was in awe every time I walked on the field,” he said. “I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform.”

It is time to stop trashing the political system and the people in it.

This isn’t hard.

Someone in a position to make offers to break bread that nobody can refuse could bring the players together for drinks and dinner and conversation. A governor could do this.

People in positions of power could talk to each other. Legislative leaders could do this.

It’s harder, of course, to get the people in the stands, who confuse cheering on their favorites with debasing their favorites’ opponents, to turn down the rhetoric, but friendly rivals on the field of play who showed the kind of respect athletes typically do at game’s end would help.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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