Becker: 'Toxic civility' or vocal civic engagement?
Rick Becker is the founder and leader of the Bastiat Caucus of the North Dakota Republican Party and a member of the North Dakota legislature. He joins The Dickinson Press' opinion page as a guest columnist.
Lack of civility in state politics seems to be the theme of the week in local media. When a Republican state senator took the very unusual step of announcing her retirement in a prepared speech on the senate floor during the special session, she gave several reasons. Amongst the reasons given, personal and family were significant, and a concern about loss of civility in national politics creeping into the state and the legislature was less significant. A second state senator, this one a Democrat, in announcing her retirement in a social media post, piggybacked onto the concern about civility and divisiveness as the reason for her retirement. Interestingly, she also expressed being disheartened by the effect of grassroots citizens on their legislators, when those legislators “comply” with the wishes of the people. My take is that it would also be very disheartening to spend seven years in the legislature as a member of the party which, by being a super-minority, is rendered ineffective and insignificant. This is likely a significant reason for her retirement. Nevertheless, with the two announcements, we have the concern du jour; “Crisis at the Capitol, toxic lack of civility prevails”.
I agree with the two senators, in that decorum and civility are important at the capitol, especially during any formal proceeding. Decorum conveys respect for the institution. Respect for the institution is an expression of respect for the citizens by way of recognizing the importance of the job in their representation. Breakdown in decorum at the capitol, however, is an infrequent occurrence, requiring nothing more than a slight course correction and moving on. Any loss of civility in the form of a break in decorum is nothing new. Being a natural, inevitable occurrence in any legislative body, it has been present since the formation of the state. It also isn’t any more severe now than it has been in the past. In 2013, a state legislator apologized publicly for calling the House majority leader a Nazi. That occurred during the first session of one of the retiring senators, and two years before the other became a legislator, so no, this is not a new situation.
What is new, or at least has been a long while since it was last seen, is the active, vocal participation of the voters. Let’s call them the grassroots. The citizens of North Dakota have been on a trajectory of becoming more aware, more concerned, and more vocal for the last ten years. It’s why I chose to run for legislative office in 2012. It’s why the voters chose Doug Burgum in 2016 - because they thought they were going to get something different than the status quo. They have watched per-capita state spending increase more than any other state in the nation, while the legislature has simultaneously been resistant to meaningful tax relief, despite having a supermajority of Republicans. Arguably long-overdue, the voters are looking for accountability. You want them to use a nicer tone, and kinder words? Too bad. As I always say, one should focus on controlling oneself, not controlling others. Soft-tone or harsh-tone, the voters are speaking, and that’s what matters.
Concerned that some legislators have “complied” with their constituent’s demands? Too bad. It is quite hypocritical for one to be completely fine with legislators “complying” with the demands of teacher’s unions, the Governor, state agencies, and select industry lobbyists, but then cry foul when the legislators choose to listen to their own constituents.
Here’s the bottom line: I’m thankful that constituents are speaking up. I’m thankful at the thought that elected officials are being held accountable for what they indicated they stood for. I’m thankful we live in a place where we have the right to express our displeasure with elected officials, in whatever tone we choose. Would I like everyone to be civil? You bet, because it’s generally a nicer, happier world when we express positivity. Not only that, but strategically speaking, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.