In 1982, I joined the campaign of a long shot Congressional candidate running in northwestern Pennsylvania. You know that man now as being Tom Ridge. He went on to a distinguished career of public service: soldier, congressman, governor, and cabinet secretary. Not bad for someone who was once memorably referred to as “the guy nobody’s heard of from a place nobody’s ever been to.”
I’ve been along for the ride right through to today as I work with Governor Ridge and my colleagues at the Ridge Policy Group. We’re still trying to do what we set out to do 37 years ago — help create good public policy that will lead to opportunity for one and all in the communities where we live.
As I write this piece, I want to be careful to not to sound like an old man yearning for the good old days. But things in politics have changed in those 37 years. In my view, most of it has not been for the better.
Below the headlines and tweets (those weren’t around in 1982!), there has been a loss civility in our public debate and personal interactions. When I started working with then Congressman Tom Ridge, we believed in the good that democratic government could do. We believed that good people committed to a shared cause could do great things. We believed in bipartisanship. We hired people regardless of political party affiliation. If they were good at the job and had the dedication to serving the position with integrity, we hired them. This is a culture that we have tried to continue to cultivate at the Ridge Policy Group.
And we believed in the simple notion of civility. Acting with respect. Listening without judgement. Speaking without prejudice. These things, we believed, should be the norm.
But more recently, you can see the fabric of our civil discourse fraying. Democracy is eroding into more and more finger-pointing. The core of our democratic institutions is being betrayed by increasing political opportunism and demonization of motives. And, most sadly, you can see young people being driven away from politics and governing.
It’s a challenge that must be met. For the last several years I have had the pleasure of working with Governor Ridge and my Alma mater, Allegheny College, in selecting annual winners of the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life. The Governor joined with the college in what is an important effort to shine a bright light on those politicians, public servants, and journalists who demonstrated not only passionate opinions but a fundamental belief in the need for civility in our national political discussions.
The list of honorees is impressive: inaugural journalists Mark Shields and David Brooks, Vice President Joe Biden and the late Senator John McCain, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her late colleague, Antonin Scalia. Last year’s winners, Congressmen Will Hurd and Beto O’Rourke, were recognized for their bipartisan road trip from Texas to DC, where they talked about issues they cared about (and sometimes disagreed) with civility and respect. They live streamed their drive.
Governor Ridge’s passionate leadership to demand a public charge for civility, along with the College, has been heralded as a vital effort in returning our political dialogue to a better place. I wish I could tell you the Prize has made a difference. Unfortunately, not yet. Daily we see acts of incivility across our political spectrum and from both sides of the aisle. Sadly, uncivil behavior seems to be the one issue where there’s bipartisan support.
Efforts like the Allegheny Prize must continue. Change must also come from our elected leaders. They need to be willing to work across the aisle and find common ground with those they disagree.
And the same must be expected from voters. As voters, we must insist our leaders act with the same respect and dignity we expect of our families, friends, and neighbors. If they don’t, then they have to be held accountable. I hope we keep that in mind as the 2020 election approaches.
In this digital age where technology has replaced old fashioned dialogue, it won’t be easy. But we have to start somewhere. We have to find a way to passionately pursue important ideals without impugning the words and actions of our political opponents. And we must ensure that the generation of leaders to come practices civility. That starts now by setting the very best example we can to soon-to-be voters.
I believe that it will take time, but that we can do it. I’m inspired by those awarded the Civility Prize. And I’m optimistic that we can move past our day to day arguments and get to a place of inclusion, understanding, and civility.
We need to.
This post was written by Ridge Policy Group partner, Mark Campbell. As a Chief of Staff for two Pennsylvania governors, Mark has overseen every aspect of state government programs, policies, and budgets. Mark has served in Washington and Harrisburg. Along the way, he learned the importance of bipartisan perspective and open-minded collaboration.