New group: Civility is more than 'please' and 'thank you,' it's 'finding and

BOISE — “I like action — it’s just who I am,” Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong told a crowd of close to 150 at a public meeting in Boise Friday evening sponsored by the National Institute for Civil Discourse. “It is common sense — why wouldn’t we come together and work toward what the majority of people want?” she asked. “Together we can make change and continue to make Idaho the best place to live.”

Armstrong is one of 26 members of a new state board the institute has named to work on its efforts here in Idaho, including the new “CommonSense American” program, through which current NICD Executive Director Keith Allred is taking the idea he piloted as “The Common Interest” in Idaho from 2005 to 2009, nationwide.

Allred, who has been a professor at Harvard and Columbia, already has signed up a diverse group of more than 3,000 members from every state — at least 10 in each state — to participate. The idea is that the group will select issues, review detailed issue briefs on them, and the group will take positions. On any that receive at least two-thirds support, the group will lobby for those positions in Congress and with the executive branch at the national level.

Allred said the nation’s founders studied 3,000 years of self-government before formulating the U.S. Constitution, trying to determine why all such previous efforts ultimately had failed. Their answer: division into factions. That’s why they set up a governmental system with so many checks and balances.

“This is why we take separation of powers so much further than everyone else,” Allred said. It’s all intended to keep a “passionate minority or an unjust majority” from imposing its will on everyone else.

Yet, Allred said, the United States today is more polarized along party lines than at any time in its history, including during the civil rights movement and the Civil War, neither of which were strictly partisan divides.

Votes in Congress are more party-line than they’ve been in 200 years, he said. “That is not OK.”With more than 40 percent of Americans identifying as independents, affiliating with neither major party, control by the base of one party or the other other essentially means a small minority controls the national agenda — and that can’t endure. It swings back, and then another small minority controls.

“It’s just never going to work for the base of a party from one-third of the country to impose their will on the other two-thirds,” Allred said.

The current generation has a duty to restore the broad consensus on a national agenda that the founders believed should arise from American democracy, Allred said, and keep the nation’s government working the way it’s worked all these years, rather than descending into something other than a real democratic republic.

When NICD contacted Allred and asked him to be its new executive director and bring his “CommonSense American” program in as a program of the institute, “I said, ‘This is the moment in American history to do this, and this is the platform to get this done,’” he said.

Bill Manny of Idaho Public Television, another Idaho board member, said, “There is so much in the middle that people agree on, and so little that seems to get done these days.” It’s time, he said, to “start trying to change things.”

Allred said, “We just can’t get there without civility and respect.”

That’s “not just for the sake of being nice and polite to each other,” he noted.

Former Gov. Butch Otter, a board co-chairman, said accomplishing things in the political realm means working with others with trust, commitment and caring.

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, another board member, said, “To me, civility, as Keith and the governor said, is more than just ‘please’ and ‘thank-you.’ It’s seeing people as people and not as objects,” or obstacles in your way. “When we connect, we show up with a genuine desire to help,” she said.

She cited the first bill she ever got passed in the Idaho Legislature, “right-to-try” legislation that was first brought to her by a Republican constituent who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. She worked with people of all political stripes on the bill, she noted. “It’s about people and getting things done and treating each other with dignity and respect.”

She added, “There’s no reason you can’t be passionate and be civil. … We are all in this together.”

Allred said the effort is really about “finding and championing broadly supported solutions.”

“It’s got to be all of us as a generation,” he said. “I can’t think of anything more consequential.”

Original article published in the Idaho Press on May 19, 2019. Read it here.

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