Today’s elected officials could learn a lot from Senator Howard H. Baker Jr.
Tennessee governors—sitting Governor Bill Haslam and his two predecessors, Phil Bredesen and Don Sundquist—concurred on this point Thursday when they met for a discussion about civility, and the lack of it, in political discourse. Held at UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, the event was sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association, the Baker Center, the UT College of Law, and the First Amendment Center.
“There is not a better venue for this program than the Baker Center. This center is named in honor of the man who for the last fifty years has personified that balance,” said moderator Bill Haltom, a lawyer with the Memphis firm Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell PLLC.
Using many stories about Senator Baker as examples, the governors attempted to define civility, agreeing that it has to do with respect, listening, and learning to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
“Civility is respecting the rights of others to have opinions,” Sundquist said. “Compromise is not failure of principles. It’s the only way to go.”
Haslam added, “Conflict is different than the lack of civility.”
And Bredesen suggested that incivility is often the symptom of a larger problem—societal unrest about the economy, dissatisfaction with election officials, or a disagreement over major issue facing the nation.
The three governors said that while incivility seems to have escalated nationally, the political climate of Tennessee remains somewhat calmer.
Bredesen said he thinks that’s because state-level politicians are closer to the electorate and see how the issues affect them. That “makes it harder to get caught up in the power games.”
Haltom asked the governors if incivility is escalated by “one issue” voters—those who use their money and votes to support only politicians who concur with them on polarizing issues, such as gun control or abortion.
The governors said “one-issue voters” and extremists may be loud, but they’re not as influential as some think.
“People aren’t necessarily where those loudest voices are,” Haslam said, citing a recent poll in Tennessee that showed “70 percent of the people in the state thought the state was more conservative than they are.”
Bredesen agreed: “We categorize everything … but go walk around at Wal-Mart and the people you meet don’t fit in any of those categories.
“It’s like all these comments on websites. Do you know any of those people? We shouldn’t mistake those for the public perception.”
Sundquist, who served in the US House of Representatives for twelve years before becoming governor, said today’s politicians, especially those in Washington, DC, don’t seem to share the same camaraderie they once did. While Congressmen used to stay in Washington for longer stretches, today they fly in and fly out—some on a weekly basis, he said.
When he and Howard Baker worked in Washington, DC, he said, Washington politicians “knew each other and we worked together.” They forged relationships that fostered civility.
“You’re less likely to attack a member if you know his family, go out socially,” he said.
To some extent, the governors agreed, changes in the media have exacerbated incivility.
“From the old world of having three major networks to where we are now, where you can have the filter you want,” Haslam said.
Because they’re in a battle to win readers and viewers, media are “in the entertainment business,” Haslam said. As citizens and voters “our job is go listen and expose ourselves to as many points of reference as we can.”
Bredesen said civility—and finding common ground that both sides embrace—is critical to making lasting changes in government.
He pointed to the education reforms he saw enacted while serving as the mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999. Six months after he left office, some of those reforms already had been set aside.
The same thing may happen with Obama’s health care changes; because they are so hotly debated, they risk not standing the test of time.
“When you push something through, you seed its undoing by the next guy,” he said.
Thursday’s forum was the third of three held across the state as part of “Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy—A National Dialogue,” funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and conducted in partnership with the American Bar Association Division for Public Education.
C O N T A C T :
Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, firstname.lastname@example.org)