Editorial Board: Unpopularity in our politics leads to less effective government | editorial staff
EDITORIAL OF THE STAR-TRIBUNE
Wyoming could for a long time look at the rough policies of other states and be grateful that such disputes and antagonisms were rare in these parts. Our government may not always have been perfect, but our leaders preferred a pragmatic approach that focused more on accomplishments than insults. We celebrated politicians like Senator Mike Enzi, who touted his famous 80-20 rule – that it is better to focus on the 80% that we agree on than the 20% that separates us.
But it is clear that things are changing. Behavior that was once unacceptable – insulting colleagues with profanity or stirring up ghosts of violence – is today not only tolerated by some, but celebrated. For a growing number of politicians, success seems to be less about solving problems than about a brilliant Facebook post or a tweet that generates a wave of “likes”. In this world things are black and white. Sensible people cannot disagree. A person with a different political stance is a tyrant or a traitor.
We saw this attitude grow in the Statehouse. Earlier this year, a legislature proposed the execution of a government official. Another, frustrated by the last legislative term’s instruction, posted a meme begging supporters to “fix bayonets” and remembering it was the third rib. A political official suggested that a senator kill himself and a former House Speaker was caught berating a colleague on the House floor.
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But rudeness is also increasing in our communities. We saw it in demonstrations where political opponents were branded as enemies rather than people with a different idea of how the government should work. And we’ve even seen it happening with school boards or city councils. Note that the election of Casper’s mayor, usually a pro forma for a primarily ceremonial position, has led to collusion lately.
Those who advocate an unqualified approach to politics say that there is a need to get things done. But it is not. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Growing rudeness is not about clutching our pearls and longing for a more posh time. It’s about wanting effective government. To put it simply: if you cannot dialogue, you cannot legislate.
Take the final legislature. There was a lot of overheated talk, insults and attacks. But results? The legislature has presented exactly one bill that only gives the governor money for a legal battle that he would have led anyway. Meanwhile, the very real problems plaguing our state – a volatile economy that is overly dependent on a few key industries, an unsustainable education system, and the migration of young people to other states – are not being addressed.
Unpopularity harms our politics in other ways. It discourages qualified candidates from running. Think about it. Are you looking to expose yourself to hyperbolic attacks from strangers on the internet? Would you okay with hateful comments and the occasional threat? Would you like colleagues who hear these threats to insist that they are legitimate or to dismiss them as empty talk? How many people who might have been able lawmakers, trustees, or councilors decided not to run after considering these questions? How many good ideas did we miss as a result?
Our leaders can help by making it clear what is right and what is wrong. If unacceptable behavior is addressed quickly, it is less likely to continue. But minimizing it or ignoring it, or worse, justifying bad deeds for agreeing to the policy, only feeds the growing rot.
It is important to note that this rise in rudeness is mounting across the country. It’s also important to realize that social media perpetuates hostility by blowing us up and adding to the argument. But these truths do not absolve us from responsibility. At the end of the day, the people who practice rudeness were chosen by the voters. That is, it is the voters who have to decide whether this is the government they want? Or, more critically, they have to ask themselves: Does it work?
The evidence shows that increasingly this is not the case. Incivility is ineffective, costly, and a waste of time. It distracts us from real problems. And it poisons our ability to get things done. Almost any Wyomingite would agree they want a government that solves problems. A government made up of people who practice courtesy is more likely to achieve this. It is not a government made up of politicians who attack and insult. What would you prefer?
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