Keynoting the annual Restorative Justice Conference at Marquette University Law School on Friday, news commentator and author John Avlon called for those who want to see more civility and cooperation in government bodies to assert themselves.
“You have to play offense from the center,” said Avlon, a columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a frequent commentator on CNN. “Part of the problem with moderates is that they’re moderate.”
Avlon told a capacity audience in the Appellate Courtroom in Eckstein Hall that there is more that unites Americans than divides them, but some act like the opposite is true. He said people in both the Republican and Democratic parties need to take stronger stands against those who oppose working with people of differing views in reaching solutions to problems facing the nation.
“Principled compromise is the basis for a functioning democracy,” he said.
Avlon’s remarks were part of the day-long conference, “Restoring Faith in Government: Encouraging Civil Public Discourse,” which included discussions about the state of political campaign advertising, media coverage of politics and policy, and what, if anything, can be done about frequent expression of political hostility in comments on the Internet.
But it also included a panel discussion with three nationally-known mediators who described how they were able to help bring successful resolution of difficult issues by working with people with opposing views and who encouraged people to make more use of such mediation.
And the conference ended with a discussion with four Marquette students who have been involved with the university’s Les Aspin Center for Government and who want to go into public service, with hopes of playing constructive roles in finding answers to complex issues in areas such as the relationship between medical providers and government.
In his remarks, Avlon called for reforms of government procedures that have given those who do not want to work together so much power. When it comes to the United States Congress, he said that should include limiting the use of filibusters to delay action in the Senate, banning “secret holds” that allow individual senators to stop action on specific matters without identifying themselves publicly, and requiring that presidential nominations be approved within a specific time frame such as 90 days.
“You change the rules, you change the game,” Avlon said.
He said he is working on a book about President George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which Washington warned against those who would split the community in pursuit of their own ends.
Overall, Avlon said, “We cannot seem to reason together,” but he said the situation is not hopeless if people advocate for government in which leaders work together on the issues.
In one session at the conference, two former lieutenant governors of Wisconsin, Republican Margaret Farrow and Democrat Barbara Lawton, agreed that one of the things that has been missing in Wisconsin’s Legislature is more general adherence to basic rules of etiquette. Lack of civility is “a symptom, a habit, and occasionally a cause” of wider problems in governing, Lawton said. There would be more productive exchanges between legislators if rules of etiquette were observed, she said.
Farrow said, “If you don’t understand you’re serving people, don’t run for office.” She complimented the four Marquette student panelists for dressing for the conference better than many legislators do for floor sessions in the Capitol.
During the panel discussion on hostility on the internet Steve Johnson, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who has covered internet issues for years, said online comments are “a hotbed of uncivil behavior.” He said civility on the internet may seem unattainable, but comments can sometime be enlightening, informative, and entertaining.
“Do your part to start making things better,” Johnson said. “Go home tonight and please, please, post a coherent and properly spelled comment beneath a You Tube video.”
George Stanley, managing of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said the newspaper is regularly reviewing its policies on posting of comments on stories in hopes of finding ways to deal better with inappropriate comments. But, he said, it is difficult and the newspaper does not have enough staff to police comments individually. For some stories, including obituaries, the only answer is to turn off the comment option.
Gregory T. Helding, a Racine alderman who also is a student at Marquette Law School, said he’s seen public discourse stifled by online attacks because people worry that bloggers will go after them. Helding also said he knows of people who want to get involved in public issues or even run for office who have been discouraged because of the kind of attacks found online.
In another panel discussion, two people who have been involved in running campaigns in Wisconsin said the content of personal attacks had not really gotten worse in recent years – it has been aggressive throughout American history – but the flood of money into campaigns and the greatly increased use of media both by campaigns and by independent efforts has made such messages more prevalent.
“Is the actual message harsher? No. It’s just that there’s so much more of it,” said Joe Wineke, former chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and a former legislator.
Mark Graul, who has managed numerous Republican campaigns in the state, contrasted the amount of money it took to run a campaign for the Legislature or for Congress in the mid-1990s to spending now. He also criticized the news media “and so-called watchdog groups” for focusing on minor issues and perceived ethical matters rather than serious policy stands of candidates.
Graul told moderator Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, that, when you’re in the middle of a campaign, “winning is everything. . . . Whatever message works, you do.” He said he wishes candidates would be less afraid to say what they think needs to be done to solve problems, rather than only what they think will get votes.
Janine P. Geske, professor of law and director of the Restorative Justice Institute, said the goal of the conference was to focus attention on the issue of incivility in hopes of promoting increasing commitments to handle public issues constructively, cooperatively, and civilly.
The full conference may be viewed by clicking here.
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