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My Turn
Other Views from Those in the Know
Robert W. McKnight
former member, Florida Legislature
Civility in Public Life: What Can Floridians Do About It?

Most of us heard our parents preach about the need for civility at an early age. So what's happened to civility in public life?

Perhaps the genesis of political incivility started with President Richard Nixon’s catchy campaign slogan 40 years ago, admonishing the need for the “Moral Majority” to speak up and be heard, strongly. Listening carefully were two then-unknown Southern preachers, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who began preaching about the intersection of religion and politics, and encouraging their flock to vote and loudly vocalize their faith, almost exclusively in the Republican Party. Similarly, the Democrats had evangelized for years in African-American communities, facilitating voter registration and vocalizing frustrations.

But the real cementing of incivility came with the surprise election of U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995. He strategically orchestrated the successful impeachment of President Bill Clinton and poured otherwise verbal unmentionables on the political flame. With the concurrent advent of the omnipresent social media, vituperative superlatives were all over the Internet and beyond—by both Republicans and Democrats, to be sure.

No less than Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama pledged to communicate civilly and appeared to do so, but without support from their surrogates. 

Today, I would argue that the lack of civility is the main reason for the gridlock in Washington and Tallahassee, even more than the issues themselves.  To his credit, although I believe that Gov. Rick Scott has been an abysmal failure as Florida's chief executive, he has been civil. And in recent days, he appears to be more sensitive to the needs and interests of his constituents, as evidenced by his recent "listening tour." But he could do more by setting an example for his colleagues in the Florida Legislature.  Imagine if the governor heralded the introduction of his most prized legislation -- by a legislator from the other party?

What else can we do in Florida to restore political civility?  Other than starting with one politician and one candidate at time, perhaps we should take a written pledge, just like Grover Norquist asks politicians to sign a pledge against raising taxes. The pledge would not require government enforcement, just a disclaimer at the end of each ad, like “I am Robert McKnight, and I approve this ad, and I pledge to conduct my campaign and my personal communications with civility.”

It is worth a try.

Robert W. McKnight is a former member of the Florida Senate and House of Representatives, representing Dade and Monroe Counties.  He is the author of two award-winning books and a political commentator on ABC TV News/WTXL 27 HD in Tallahassee.

Published Sunday, October 07, 2012

by Dr. Radut.