Demand A Civil Democracy

Texas may once have been part of the “Wild West” but that time is long past.

So the fact that two popularly elected state lawmakers couldn’t resolve their differences with words and instead “tussled” — as the Texas Tribune politely characterized it — is beyond inexcusable. It’s embarrassing.

Elected officials threatening to beat each other up is not the message they or any other public officials should be sending to the people who elected them. And it certainly is not the message these elected “leaders” should be sending to the next generation. If they want to wrestle, they should try out for the WWF not run for office.

The conflict happened on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives on May 29 — the last day of the 85th Regular Legislative Session. The fact that demonstrators were in the gallery protesting a bill that had already been passed, in addition to the general hubbub that happens on the last day of any session, may well have frayed some nerves.

But threatening each other with physical harm is not the response voters want nor expect from their duly elected officials be it at the city, state or federal level. Our elected officials are supposed to be leaders of their communities and thereby they owe it to themselves as well as those they represent to set a good example — there are already enough bad role models in the world today

These legislators owe the public — for whom they work — the courtesy of acting like the adults they claim to be come election time. The state legislature is the training ground for many future members of the House and Senate. In the current Congress 222 of the 435 Members of the U.S. House served at the state level and over half the US Senate did as well. As a nation, we do not want, nor need, them to bring this type of behavior to the United States Congress.

This cross over is why the National Institute for Civil Discourse has a program, Next Generation (NextGen), focused on state legislators. It works by building relationships among state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle which reduces the chance that disagreements will devolve into attacks or violent behavior.

When legislators know each other personally and understand each other’s values it changes the way they work together on policy making. By highlighting the importance of these relationships along with the development of a set of ground rules for civil engagement which gets everyone to buy into a mutually agreed upon style of dialogue helps minimize harsh and violent personal attacks.

Elected officials need to remember that they are elected by the people to represent them. As such, they need to act in a manner that does not embarrasses nor disgrace their constituents. There are many difficult decisions one has to make as an elected official. We would like to think that “To brawl or not to brawl” isn’t one of them.

Our democracy deserves better. But the only way that Texas will see a course correction from these elected officials is if voters make their voices heard. Voters must remind their elected leaders that “fighting for what you believe” means finding ways to advocate diplomatically. After this “tussle,” the lawmakers involved owe the people of Texas an apology for acting like a bunch of schoolyard brawlers. That apology will only come when voters step up to demand one.

Elected officials who can disagree without being disagreeable, find common ground, and pass legislation that advances society are hallmarks of our democracy. Communities cannot move forward if lawmakers can’t work together civilly to build consensus.

Texas voters will get the democracy they demand. Now is the time to speak up.