VALPARAISO | Political leaders and others will need to practice civility if America is to keep moving forward, former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton said Monday.
Hamilton, who represented Indiana's 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1999, was keynote speaker at an event designed to promote civility.
More than 100 people attended “Civility Matters: Civility in Politics, Media and Business,” presented by the Porter County Community Foundation and Indiana Humanities at Valparaiso University's Center for the Arts.
The event also featured a panel discussion with Hamilton, Bill Masterson Jr., publisher of The Times of Northwest Indiana, and Mark Maassel, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum and chair of the Indiana Humanities board of directors.
Hamilton, a Democrat, was reelected 16 times in a district largely controlled by Republicans and was known for his ability to reach across the aisle.
He said politics in America have become much more “intense” since he was first elected in 1964. Today, there is a closely divided electorate, no clear majority, and a proliferation of special interests and highly paid lobbyists, he said.
He believes the root causes of incivility today stem from the fact that America has grown in population and diversity. To illustrate that diversity, he shared how he had difficulty finding an English language newspaper on a recent trip to Miami.
“I'm not talking Mexico City, here. I'm talking about Miami, Florida,” he said.
Despite diversity and differing viewpoints, Americans have an obligation to encourage civility if they want the country to work, he said.
“Incivility affects the quantity and quality of the work we can get done, and makes it virtually impossible to reconcile opposing points of view,” Hamilton said.
For those in politics today, the most important skill needed is the ability to resolve conflict and build consensus, he said.
In addition to politicians, members of the media play a significant role when it comes to civility.
The media often encourages division, differences and extreme positions so it can draw stark comparisons, but this only deepens the divide.
“We have an obligation to turn away from candidates and media outlets that focus on exacerbating our differences,” Hamilton said.
One way to promote civility is to educate people about civic skills and virtues, encouraging the mindset that differences should be valued, not feared, and that common ground can be found in disagreements. While people today often talk about their individual rights, those rights need to be balanced with the common good, he said.
People need to get engaged in their communities and take small actions that will improve their quality of life. Democracy will be preserved only through hard work and an engaged public, Hamilton said.
“Self-government is a monumental achievement in the history of mankind, but it does not perpetuate itself automatically,” he said.