THE BUZZ 2: Sticks and Stones

By on September 6, 2016

Wyoming statesmen weigh in on the fate of civility in politics.

Former Wyoming governor Mike Sullivan and former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson will deliver dialogue on a dying political practice: civility.

Former Wyoming governor Mike Sullivan and former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson will deliver dialogue on a dying political practice: civility.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Alan Simpson once complained on Fox News that kids today lack politeness.

“Grandchildren now don’t write a thank-you for the Christmas presents, they’re walking on their pants with the cap on backwards listening to the Enema Man and Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dogg,” the former Senator from Wyoming said.

On Tuesday, Simpson joins former Wyoming governor Mike Sullivan for a discussion of civility in politics.

Though his unadulterated words sometimes get him into trouble, Simpson is known for his bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill. Sullivan earned his civility creds as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, where he helped broker the 1998 peace accords.

With political civility in sharp decline on the national stage, and hints of scandal haunting local mayoral candidates, Tuesday’s forum on civility comes at an apt time. Moderated by former Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite, the state luminaries will discuss whether or not civil dialogue can be resuscitated in American politics.

“We chose them because one is a Republican and one is a Democrat,” Wyoming Humanities Jackson Outreach Officer Emy diGrappa said. “They have been around a long time to see the ebb and flow of politics, locally and nationally, and even internationally.”

The Humanities Council is co-sponsoring the event along with Interconnections 21 and Wyoming Public Broadcasting, which will be live-streaming the discussion.

DiGrappa says civility is about people having open conversations around critical issues. “That’s what makes a great democracy,” she said. “To be able to look at ourselves and ask ourselves why we believe what we believe and why we do what we do.”

According to a recent survey by the Associated Press, 74 percent of Americans think manners and behavior have deteriorated in the United States over the past several decades. A majority of Americans believe politicians should be held to a higher standard of civil behavior, but are not living up to that expectation.

“We have seen such a change in our political climate,” diGrappa said. “The nastiness has flown off the scale.”

Acerbic behavior has butted its way into the American workplace too. According to a 2013 Harvard Business Review, the United States has seen a dip in workplace civility. The result? The report said creativity and performance suffer in companies where incivility reigns.

“Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way, in some cases overtly retaliating,” the report’s authors wrote. “Employees are less creative when they feel disrespected, and many get fed up and leave. About half deliberately decrease their effort or lower the quality of their work.”
Town councilor Hailey Morton Levinson says when your work is political, civility is integral to finding solutions and getting things done.

“When you are civil toward one another, you can disagree and argue,” Levinson said. “But at the end of the day we were both heard and we can go forward with the best outcome. Maybe I’m not happy with it, but I’m not hurt on a personal level.”

Levinson says civility is important in politics because politics run deeper than face value. “Politics is more than reality TV,” she said. “It guides the laws we live our lives by.”

During her four years on the town council, Levinson says the tone has been cordial and her peers wish to work together. She looks forward to Tuesday’s forum as an opportunity to learn how to hone her skills. “I’ll be looking at these two great leaders in this state, and asking how can I better my leadership skills? How can I influence conversation around me?”

Tuesday’s speakers are widely esteemed for their ability to rise above name-calling.

Former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal praised Sullivan in The Denver Post: “His relentless efforts to summon the better angels of the human spirit are the trademark of his personal and professional life.”

Simpson is regarded as a trusted bipartisan leader, according to the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Most recently, he co-chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with Democrat Erskine Bowles.

Simpson’s civil discourse, however, is a matter of some debate.

In 2012, while working with Bowles on fiscal reform, Simpson sent a letter to the California Alliance for Retired Americans, saying, “What a wretched group of seniors you must be to use the faces of the very people that we are trying to save, while the ‘greedy geezers’ like you use them as a tool and a front for your nefarious bunch of crap.”

In response, the Alliance sent an open letter to Bowles requesting that he “publicly repudiate Simpson’s mean-spirited and bigoted remarks.”

DiGrappa says Simpson’s sense of humor is ultimately disarming. “He can laugh at himself,” she said. “He takes the edge off of things.”

Reviving Civility in Politics, 6 p.m. Tuesday at Center for the Arts. $25. PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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