The Fundamental Need for Mutual Respect in American Politics

by Brad McMillan
Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University

Many of our politicians—and a growing number of Americans—have lost the ability to have healthy debates without being mean-spirited.

On February 17, 2017, one of my political heroes passed away. Bob Michel was 93 years old, a decorated World War II veteran, a 38-year member of Congress, and the longest-serving minority leader in U.S. history. He also was a proud Peorian and alumnus from Bradley University, known for treating everyone with mutual respect and decency.

In a 1993 commencement address, the Honorable Bob Michel stated:
“Political debate in a democracy is often robust and harsh. It is no place for overly sensitive souls. The clash of ideas can produce an unpleasant sound. And yet in a democracy, there is a fundamental need for mutual respect. There is a need for a formal, public recognition of the ultimate dignity of those with whom we disagree—in a word, a need for civility… the public embodiment of the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’… The corrosive effects of the politics of anger are slowly destroying what I would call our civic government.”

It is hard to believe that Michel made this statement 25 years ago. Yet, the division, anger and polarization of our current political environment have only intensified. Many of our politicians—and a growing number of Americans—have lost the ability to have healthy debates without being mean-spirited. As I tell my leadership students at Bradley University: “Neither political party has a lock on wisdom, and all of us can benefit from listening to differing viewpoints.”

Last March, in a bipartisan memorial ceremony held in the U.S. Capital to honor Bob Michel, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised Michel’s “uncommonly decent spirit.” He went on to state:

“He always listened and respected another’s views. He never mistook politics for warfare because he had experienced real war. He knew that reaching a consensus was not a sign of weakness.”

It was Bob Michel’s ability to form respectful relationships across the political aisle that helped shepherd President Ronald Reagan’s tax reduction programs and strong defense policies through Congress—even though the Republicans were in a significant minority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Again, in Michel’s own words: “Civility means that peaks of uncommon progress can be reached by paths of common courtesy.”

There is a fundamental need for mutual respect in our American politics. To honor Bob Michel’s legacy, I urge our national, state and local public servants to listen to differing views with an open mind, always treat each other with common decency, and find paths of compromise for the good of the people. iBi

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