Last night my wife and I were discussing the egregious failure of the legislature to work collegially towards any kind of solution to any kind of problem. “Whatever happened to comity?” I asked. “What’s comity?” she replied.
“Comity is courtesy and considerate behavior towards one another. It’s also involved with goodwill and reasonableness.” I answered.
Comity is an old-fashioned word and an old-fashioned concept that we sorely could use today.
Everybody’s bemoaning the fact that legislators can’t get along for love nor money. In fact S&P has downgraded the United States credit rating largely because of the fractious behavior during the debt ceiling fracas – it cannot be called a debate. What S&P said they wanted to see was more in the way of cuts and the balance between revenue and expenditure cuts, not unlike the Obama plan. But what they really wanted and are really worried about is the flat-out inability of the United States to govern itself properly.
So thanks to S&P and the Tea Party, I’m approximately 15% poorer than I was two weeks ago. Millions are even worse off.
How did we get into this predicament? Where did such deep levels of rancor and spite come from? The unfortunate fact is that the United States has not had a united sense of purpose nor a united sense of accomplishment since the day Neil Armstrong hopped out of the Eagle onto the surface of the moon, with one brief exception following 9/11. And that brief unity was seized upon by George Bush to throw us into an unfunded unaccounted for war that we haven’t left a decade later. A 2nd war against Iraq following what could charitably be called lousy intelligence and uncharitably viewed as a lust for war by Bush did nothing to improve cordiality between the houses of Congress.
Following Armstrong’s moon landing we had the thrills of Vietnam, another undeclared and untaxed war. We also enjoyed the Arab oil price hike and the rise of expensive new social programs which, however expensive at the time, were vitally needed. Those same entitlement programs, with the vast increase of users due to the aging of the population, are now disproportionately expensive. They need to be managed, not discarded.
The Congress has preferred to tell the states what to do in a series of mandated but unfunded changes such as No Child Left Behind and, most recently, the new medical care legislation passed with such rancor one year ago.
In the last few years there’s been a perfect storm of bad economy, climate change, energy hassles, and a population now at 7 billion. All of this creates a world that really needs cooperative problem solving. But throw in “culture wars,” massive frustration, and add lunatic legislators who have no clue how to govern. At this point nobody feels listened to, which dials up the contentiousness factor by at least 10.
Now here’s a possible explanation of why the tone is so universally hostile, not the only reason but a strong contributor. I blame TV and talk radio. Here’s why:
Over the last twenty-five or so years, TV news has become more and more “entertainment” centered. That is, TV news now mimics the thousands and thousands of hours of TV drama. News is about stories, and stories are about people in conflict. It’s no wonder that in search of ratings, TV news has increasingly and intentionally tried to increase conflict. As a result, TV “debates” aren’t debates at all. They’re slanging matches full of interruptions, name-calling, and shouting. What a model.
Civilized discussion and debate may be relatively dull, but you have to strip out the hostility before people can actually hear one another – at which point common purposes can emerge and problems be solved, not by slapping the other guy down in mid-sentence but by building on what he has to say.
TV isn’t the only source of contentious behavior. The babbling, ranting, name-calling pundits of Talk Radio have convinced a segment of the populace that hostility is the only way to effect change. This segment is , unfortunately, unsophisticated enough to be unable to grasp the complexities of economics or the interconnections that willy-nilly now exist amongst all nations.
It’s time we all took a step back from our passions. God help us if we can’t manage that. We really need to bring the word “comity” back into everyday conversation.