Politics has always been an occasionally nasty business. Alexander Hamilton died in an 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. A South Carolina congressman caned and nearly killed a Massachusetts senator in 1856 over slavery. A mob of zealots upset by presidential election results stormed the U.S. Capitol earlier this year in an attack that led to five deaths.
Fortunately in America, these bloody internal conflicts aren’t the norm. Unfortunately, today’s polarized and charged political environment is making it harder for leaders to govern — particularly when the leaders seem to be more worried about the next election than governing.
Just look at local meetings that should be routine. Political party meetings are being hijacked more often by partisans who want to wrest control of their faction from another. In the S.C. General Assembly, there’s far less personal interaction among elected officials on different sides of the aisle, leading to rancor and lack of trust. And in Charleston this week, a city council meeting over an equity report and mask mandate turned into a five-hour embarrassment of emotional outbursts.
The Charleston meeting led four state officials to make a statement decrying “appalling” behavior directed at doctors and health professionals who spoke about the need for more masking to protect the community from the spread of COVID-19.
“We can disagree with each other without losing our civility,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson and Reps. J.A. Moore, Marvin Pendarvis and Deon Tedder, all Charleston Democrats. “Shouting insults and going so far as to spit on someone who has a different view than you is barbaric and disgusting.
“We need to lift up doctors and healthcare professionals in our community. We need to surround them with support and show our appreciation for the sacrifices they’ve made throughout this pandemic.”
Unfortunately, we live in times of incivility. We all need to chill out and take a breath. Wasn’t there someone long ago who said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself?”
Two former state senators on different sides of the aisle say civility is a key to getting things done. When people with different opinions can work together to hammer out compromises in which everyone might lose a little bit, what generally emerges is something a little bit better for everyone.
“Columbia’s just becoming a mini-version of Washington in a lot of respects,” said Larry Martin of Pickens, a Republican who served in the state House and Senate from 1991 to 2016. “It’s just harder and harder for folks to get along.”
The state Senate, he said this week, once prided itself on the ability to work together to get things done.
“You couldn’t run over the minority,” he said. “You had to negotiate and you had to reach across the aisle….The danger to democracy is that people are willing to throw the law and the Constitution to the wind to get what they want. We saw that January 6. The sheer willingness to ditch the normal to get what you want — that just makes no sense to me.”
He urged newly-elected officials to try to get to know their colleagues in other parties to develop personal relationships and build trust.
Former state Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, reflected that doctors spend thousands of hours learning their profession and gaining expertise. But in politics, too many people run roughshod over learning issues and developing the expertise to participate intelligently in public debate.
“They think it is a participatory sport and that they don’t need any background because they know they’re right,” he said. “If they want to participate, they have to actually understand the playing field.”
One thing that would help, Leventis said, is if people would focus less on the liberties offered to citizens and more on their responsibilities as citizens.
“They get so hopped up about their liberties that they forget what their obligations are to the system and the process.”
Andy Brack is publisher of the Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to: email@example.com.