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Civility: Where Have You Gone?

By Mark D. Olshan, Associate Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International


We can work it out … Then-President Ronald Reagan (left) in the Oval Office with then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
Photo credit: National Archives White House Collection; Identifier: 75853977; Local Identifier: C27608-19
A few days after the 2016 election, a young colleague came into my office, closed the door and asked if we could talk. He was experiencing a very uneasy feeling of what we were about to be living through as a country. He asked, “How are we going to get through this? You lived through similar times in the 60s and 70s. Will we be okay?”  

While I shared many of his concerns on a personal level, I counseled that I felt the system was much stronger than any one individual, and that we had learned what it takes to make things work, even through difficult times.

Okay, so I was wrong.

We are now experiencing a near total gridlock on some of the most critically important issues of our times. So, from this person’s perspective, the system is undeniably broken.

In the 1980s Republican President Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, with whom I disagreed vehemently on domestic spending and economic policies, had a very positive personal and working relationship with the then Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Together, they created some very popular and important bipartisan legislation. There wasn’t the same vitriol permeating the air that we find in politics today. The system worked, to a point.

Unfortunately, compromise cannot, and will not ever happen in today’s politically toxic climate. This, though, is not the will of the people: In a recent Hill-HarrisX poll, an overwhelming majority of registered voters — 75% of both political parties sampled — stated categorically that they would prefer their elected officials reach across the aisle to find solutions.

Changing the Status Quo

So, what does this mean for the future? Watching the Democratic presidential debates, I get the feeling that the candidates are their own worst enemy. The country is more divided than it was before the last election. We have made no investment in our nation’s infrastructure; the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is still holding up but has been significantly weakened by inaction to improve on it and periodic attempts to gut it altogether. Too many candidates are trying to gain traction by doing everything they can to weaken their opponents rather than uniting to change the status quo.

To quote New York Times columnist Tom Friedman: “Dear Democrats: This is not complicated! Just nominate a decent, sane person, one committed to reunifying the country and creating more GOOD jobs … And that candidate can win!”

Even Tom Hayden, radical activist of the 1960s, learned that you must get into the political mainstream to effect any real change. Candidates who embrace policies that are unpopular with the majority of the electorate don’t stand a chance of actually being elected and having any success in changing the political system.

For example, prominent presidential candidates for the Democratic nomination proudly raised their hands in favor of replacing private health insurance — now covering roughly 150 million people — with Medicare for All. Their alternative would be a government-sponsored, and presumably government-funded system that has not been thoroughly vetted, scored or thought out. Even if, in the long term, the concept is shown to have merit, and, if eventually enacted, properly funded and a better and more effective means of providing quality health care, is it the right proposal to be introduced to the electorate at this time?  

A Hill-HarrisX poll found that only 13% of respondents favored Medicare for All if it meant getting rid of private insurance. Is it sensible to make a proposal supported by only 13% of the voting public the centerpiece of your campaign? I don’t think so.


Nostalgic Mantra: Make Love…Convivial audience members at the Woodstock Festival, 1969. Photo credit: Lotys


…Not War. A 1971 Vietnam War protest in Washington, D.C. Photo credit Leena A. Krohn, photographer
Next Steps

So, where do we go from here?  Let’s think for a moment as to what can be “realistically” accomplished by whoever gets through the gauntlets of debates, primaries, caucuses and endless town halls. An infrastructure bill would get reasonable bipartisan support. I would also argue that attempts to shore up the ACA by reintroducing the individual mandate might make sense.

Additionally, I would fight to strengthen Social Security. First to go should be the cap on how much income goes untaxed to fund the program. Why should individuals currently making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and more, stop paying into the system after the first $133,000 of income, the current ceiling?  If you think $133,000 isn’t much money, set the cap at $500,000, or even $1 million. The issue of how to pay for Social Security would be moot.

Now, I do not wish to wage a war with those whose income places them in the top 1%. For the most part, I’m more than certain that you’ve earned that income legitimately. But I firmly believe that you have an obligation to pay your fair share in order for those less fortunate to be able to take part in federal programs that allow them to live out their lives with dignity.

Let me share one final thought. I don’t want to lay this all at the feet of Democrats, to suggest they alone can help bring about normalcy simply by bringing change to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Even if Democrats take a more conciliatory approach to politics, they still need Republicans to play ball. And if recent history is any indicator, even a change at the White House won’t get Republicans to be the political party of comity and civility.

But, hopefully, it’s not too late. Hopefully, we can go back to some sense of “normal” political squabbling … a country, where you campaign like hell against the other party but afterwards reach across the aisle to find a little common ground. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?

Mark D. Olshan, who holds a doctorate in psychology, is associate executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International and director of the organization’s Center for Senior Services.