Restoring Respect

Posted: Apr 27, 2010 12:01 AM
Restoring Respect

It’s good to be young. But 2010 isn’t an especially good time to be young and looking for a job. A survey from Michigan State University shows hiring of new grads was down 40 percent last year, and is expected to dip lower this spring.

But that’s not the only problem young Americans face. Even as the job market has been drying up, so has political civility.

Consider the struggle likely to erupt over the next Supreme Court nomination. The week that Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement was unseasonably hot in Washington. But it was nothing compared to the heat that could be generated by the summer hearings over the confirmation of his successor.

Recall that President Obama’s first nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, was confirmed last year on a mostly party line, 68-31 vote. The previous nominee, by President Bush, survived an even narrower vote. Samuel Alito was confirmed 58-42 with just four Democratic votes.

But isn’t this the way things have always been, with parties squabbling over judicial nominees? No.

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Antonin Scalia, often considered the conservative mastermind of today’s court, was approved in 1987 without a dissenting vote. Even liberals agreed to his nomination: a 98-0 count. In 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now the most liberal voice on the court, sailed through on a 96-3 vote. Not so long ago, senators weighed only qualifications, not partisan politics, before voting.

As Washington goes, so goes the country.

“I can’t conduct a focus group and not have people treat each other with disrespect and incivility,” pollster Frank Luntz said recently on FOX News. “The tone of Washington, D.C., is becoming the tone of all of America, and that is the most frightening thing of all. And those people in D.C. ought to pay attention, because they’re doing a lot of damage out here in the American people.”

Call it the “broken windows” theory of politics. When a broken window in a building is left un-repaired, the rest of the windows are soon broken by vandals. Why? Sociologists say it’s because the broken window sends a signal that no one is in charge here, that breaking more windows costs nothing, that it has no undesirable consequences.

The broken window is a metaphor for a host of ways that behavioral norms can break down in a community. If one person scrawls graffiti on a wall, others will soon be at it with their spray cans. If one aggressive panhandler begins working a block, others follow.

In short, once people begin disregarding the norms that keep order in a community, both order and community unravel, sometimes with astonishing speed. Once Sen. Ted Kennedy railed against “Robert Bork’s America,” the stage was set for future arguments over judicial politics.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. When order is visibly restored at a basic level, the environment can change.

The need for better political manners has never been greater. Our nation is divided as never before between the left and the right. We are at loggerheads on profoundly important political and social questions.

Who will begin to restore civility? We grizzled veterans of Washington politics hope today’s graduates can.

In the years ahead, our economy will improve, and with it the job prospects for young graduates. Members of the class of 2010 should spend their lives defending their convictions with all the spirit they can, but also with respect for the other side. As they begin their post-college lives, they can demand our political leaders chart a better way forward.

The tea party activists are setting a good example, with spirited rallies that focus on issues, not personalities. And if you’re a member of Congress in a country where citizens demand their leaders act civilly, you’d better be paying attention.

Keeping the pressure on, and keeping the debate on a respectful level, is a job for today’s grads -- and all of us -- to take seriously.

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