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Without civility, politics falls apart


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Historically, Americans have generally accepted the idea that the existence of two strong parties has enhanced our nation’s democracy. We have been able to say with some confidence, “Our system may not be perfect, but it is the best in recorded history.”

I passionately believe it is the best system.

Today, our two-party system is very fragile.

The conservative/moderate division in the Republican Party has been present since Dwight Eisenhower. Today, moderate Republicans are rare.

The liberal/moderate division in the Democratic Party has been present since Franklin Roosevelt. Today, moderate Democrats are rare.

Voter registration in the United States is roughly one-third Republicans, one-third Democrats and one-third no party. The “no party” people like to refer to themselves as “independents.” I suggest that because they absent themselves from the process until after candidate selection has taken place, they should be called “apathetics”.

About one-sixth of registered voters — about 2 percent of all Americans — control each party. These voters form what is referred to as the “base.” Among these two groups, pseudo-moral issues make differences intolerable.

The glue of legislative bodies historically has been collegiality – the willingness to talk, to accept some differences, to share friendship. Today, the members of these bodies avoid any contact outside the “debate.”

Even more important, the morality debate masks the power struggle. It is not about morality at all. It is about the fear of losing power. In the past, a good representative ran with a party, but represented all constituents. Now, every issue is a political prism.

Americans have a great hunger for principled leaders and for civility in discussion. In today’s society, there is little listening, only individuals or institutions waiting their turn

In Iowa, I know we are capable of creating better and more effective ways of communicating with our elected officials. Of expecting, even demanding, civil discourse among our government officials. Democracy does not work well without citizen involvement, and that involvement cannot be limited to the voting booth.

After several years of living overseas, I have returned with a renewed and deeper appreciation of my Iowa roots and the willingness of my fellow Iowans to participate in “good” causes. Our participation in the caucus process demonstrates our desire to understand the issues, to debate with our neighbors, to hold candidates to certain standards, to become involved.

My good friend and mentor Mary Louise Smith once said: “Community requires the capacity for great conversations about things that matter.” In a future piece, I’ll propose a series of discussions designed to encourage and enhance citizen re-engagement in state and local government. Please read it and resolve to respond.

Mary Kramer is a former president of the Iowa Senate and U.S. ambassador to the Eastern Caribbean.

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