Alfred Regnery and Stephen Brooks
As the nation began to celebrate the 4th of July last week, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors found itself mired in name-calling, nastiness and a spate of incivility that would have been more appropriate in the old Soviet Union than in Little Washington. One supervisor commented that it was the most unpleasant experience he has endured in his many years of public service.
Americans are becoming too accustomed to rudeness, a lack of civility and decorum and obstruction of debatable policies and issues. Too many elected officials and celebrities refer to their political opponents with vulgarities that would have been publicly denounced a generation ago.
The supervisors’ meeting in question was held just two days before Independence Day — the celebration of the onset of the American Republic and a day on which we remember the launch of civil, democratic government first in the United States and later around the world.
George Washington, for whom our county seat — the site of last week’s rude and childish behavior — is named famously spelled out his idea of civility in his “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” — 110 short rules that remained his standard of behavior in public for the rest of his life, as it has for many other public figures.
Emotions certainly ran high during the Constitutional Convention, presided over by George Washington, and to call the debate spirited would be an understatement. But voices were not raised, and abusiveness, name calling and lack of civility never entered the debate. According to an article published recently by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, during the four months of debate, “the Convention was marked by a surprising degree of civic friendship borne out of frequent interaction, daily dinner parties that cut across party and sectional lines, and a variety of parliamentary procedures designed to encourage open-mindedness and rational deliberation.” That civility and friendship among those who wrote our Constitution would go on to become the hallmark and foundation of American democracy.
A great part of that democracy, launched just 229 years ago last week, was acceptance of the fact that when one side does not prevail, it accepts the result and moves on to the next matter. Half of all candidates for election, assuming there is an opponent, are going to lose. When they do, they normally accept it and either try again or find something else to do. Those who cannot accept such a loss, of either an election or determination of a public issue, denigrate our democracy — and more often than not wind up on the losing side the next time around.
Our own Board of Supervisors lost that sense of decorum and civility last week. Two supervisors, one a 20-year veteran who knows better, the other a freshman who should know better, resorted to accusations, shouting and interruptions because they did not get their way. They would both be well advised to take a lesson from our founding fathers — whose debates and issues were certainly more profound than those over which our two supervisors became so exercised — before becoming engaged in the next matter on which they may differ with their colleagues.
Name calling, empty accusations and general lack of civility in public discourse degrade politics into a clash of nastiness and insults. The result? Bodies elected to serve all constituents sink into factions that thrive on pettiness, leaving the issues which are their responsibility unresolved and important problems left undone.
Ronald Reagan, who many consider among our greatest presidents, and in whose administration Al Regnery served, came to the Oval Office in 1981 with strong opinions on many of the great issues confronting the world. He won on many of those issues, but he did so by maintaining a sense of civility, tactfulness and good cheer. His friendships with House Speaker Tip O’Neill and “Lion of the Senate” Ted Kennedy were legendary. They differed on virtually everything, but when one side won, the other respected that victory and they would go on to the next question confronting the nation while remaining friends as they did so.
If Rappahannock is the special place that many of us like to think it is, we deserve better than the unpleasantness exhibited at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting. George Washington would, we suspect, not disagree.
Regnery, a conservative Republican, and Brooks, a liberal Democrat, both live in Rappahannock County. They are co-chairmen of United Citizens of Rappahannock.