CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The audience was polite. It had to be. After all, this was no tea party. It was a stop on Jim Leach's 50-state "civility tour," and if any one of the 200 or so in attendance felt anxiety about rising hostility in today's political and social discourse, only genteel venting was allowed.
Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, made his case Thursday night at the Levine Museum of the New South in a program presented by the museum and the North Carolina Humanities Council. The former Iowa Republican congressman -- appointed by Democratic President Obama to a four-year term at NEH in 2009 -- is himself an example of bipartisanship. He didn't spare either side in the current rancorous landscape.
With most congressional seats safety Democratic or Republican, extremes of both parties choose primary candidates, he said. The "majoritarian center" is not represented. If an issue is defined as "moral," your opponent's views are, of course, "immoral." You "don't hear comments about the public good anymore."
"Almost all the compromises are made within the majority party, not between the parties," Leach said. "It's absolutely inconceivable to me that Republicans shouldn't find some Democratic initiatives helpful, and absolutely inconceivable to me that Democrats shouldn't from time to time vote for Republican amendments."
Leach referenced Walt Whitman's description of America's "athletic democracy" to say he's not advocating compromise at any cost. "Argumentation," he said, is a prerequisite to avoiding tyranny. But when public officials label the country's leaders communist and fascist, when others "are toying with what I consider to be the most history-blind radicalism conceivable" – secession – it's a problem for all of us, he said. "One has to look through not only the meaning of words but the fact that they matter."
"Polarizing rhetoric can precipitate violence," Leach said. It "takes a commitment to listen, to watch, read and think" in ways that allow the imagination to put oneself in another's shoes. "If we can't respect our neighbors, how can we expect others to respect us, our values and our way of life?"
The conversation is one we've started on Politics Daily and Woman Up. In one post, I asked whether sometimes being "politically correct"
is just correct. Melinda Henneberger
contemplated what would make online commenters rejoice in the accidental death of a women they never met. And Joann M. Weiner
suggested asking the question "would mom approve" before letting loose language fly.
George Kerr, 83, who came to hear Leach's message, wants to join in. "We're just shouting at each other," said the Matthews, N.C., retired steel industry worker. "We need a really strong voice accepting of a bit of difference in people." His wife, Frances Kerr, 81, a homemaker and retired social worker, notices the disrespect through all levels of society. "Young people don't have respect for old people; they don't have respect for teachers."
Doris Anderson, a retired teacher from Fort Mill, S.C., by way of Los Angeles, is as upset as Leach with the lack of civility in Congress. She wants to see laws more concerned with the welfare of the American people, "rather than what's good for the Democratic Party or the Republican Party." Her friend Linda Royer, a New Yorker now in Fort Mill, said, "In a global world, the way other people perceive us is very important."
Ironically, Leach acknowledged, the anger he's observing in his state-by-state pilgrimage can "accentuate some of the trends that many people don't want to see." And Leach admitted that while polls suggest the country doesn't want negativity, "everyone in politics knows it's negativity that changes elections."
"Sports right now are playing by better rules than American politicians," he said, though he lost some in the crowd when he used North Carolina and Duke as examples of teams that "compete like mad," but still respect each other.
After Leach's talk, I asked Rep. Larry Kissell, who was in the audience, how it felt to be talked about. (The Democrat from North Carolina's 8th district might have some awkward conversations with members of his own party after a "no" vote on health care.) Kissell endorsed the need for better working relationships and a change in tone in the country and Congress, and said he's trying. Individual members of Congress get along pretty well when they're not working, he said. Honest.
Harry Taylor, a real-estate broker who lost to GOP Rep. Sue Myrick in the last N.C. 9th congressional district race, said that if his last name were Potter instead of Taylor, he would make the notion of party vanish from everyone's memory. Then, he said, candidates would have to work for votes based on issues and not fall back on divisive name-calling and labels, led by "talk-show hosts, political parties and lobbyists." Taylor, who made national headlines when he critically -- but politely, he reminded me -- questioned then-President Bush
at a Charlotte town hall, said there are still people who "won't talk to me" or who don't want to talk about anything else.
Leach doesn't have all the answers, though he's gathering converts one state at a time. (He's only five states into his tour.) "There is a breakdown that everybody's watched, a breakdown in Washington -- but it isn't Washington alone," Leach told me. "It's society itself."
"We've got to think of ourselves as the American family. There can be disagreement but there has to be some sense that we're all in the mess together, and we're all wanting positive outcomes."
"Some of the strongest arguments are in a family, but families stick together."