That sickening thud reverberating around the nation this week is civility hitting absolute rock bottom in our nation’s capital.
While neither party is exactly shrouded in nobility, our president must accept the entirety of the blame for this latest descent into tumult, for tweeting that four Democratic women of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Whatever you think of this president and his policies, since three of the four congresswomen are Americans by birth his tweet is evocative of a xenophobia one would hope would be restricted to an inglorious past.
Most ominous on this dark day for democracy, though, was the fact that House Civility Caucus chair Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, became so fed up with presiding over the peevish, hours-long House debate over simply condemning the tweets that he dropped the gavel and walked away.
“It’s one of those moments,” Cleaver said on CNN Wednesday, “where you realize that people have come here for the purpose of conflict, being engaged in conflict, as opposed to getting something done.”
When a man who has made a congressional career of pressing for bipartisan cordiality finds himself choked by dissonance, he becomes a canary in the mine.
Toxicity in the Washington air has reached a level that should frighten all Americans.
In a message to his colleagues in Congress at the start of its summer break last year, Cleaver repeated Lincoln’s pre-Civil War admonition that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Noting divisions in the U.S. House at the time, Cleaver added, “This nation cannot long survive unless the chasm is quickly closed.”
In the year since, and just this week, discord and dysfunctionality in D.C. have become an imminent threat to the republic.
While the nation’s critical challenges languish on the steps of power, our elected leaders debase the public debate and the public office they’ve been loaned on our behalf.
The White House, with its concentration of vast executive branch power in one person, has a unique responsibility to set the tone coast to coast and beyond.
The pitch and volume of these tweets and, increasingly, this presidency have only served to drag an already coarse dialogue ever lower.
Again, to dangerous, uncharted depths.
How to break this high fever, when a congressman devoted to decorum succumbs, however briefly, to the distemper around him?
One suggestion from Cleaver himself: While people can’t control what a president says or does, they can control how, or if, they respond.
“We can’t continue to react to this,” Cleaver told CNN. “He’s going to insult some others, he’s going to speak some untruths and so forth. We need to just let him hang out at the White House and do that. ...
“My suggestion to the House and the Senate and the people of the country is to forget the man’s tweets. He’s playing us like a Stradivarius.”
Nor can we give up on civility, even when it feels like throwing cold water at a Category 5 hurricane. “I’ll be honest with you,” Cleaver told The Wall Street Journal, “when I walked down, in my head I was like, ‘I’m through with this mess. These people don’t want discourse.’” Yet, even after a very difficult day, Cleaver plans to continue with the Civility Caucus. He needs our support in doing so.
Beyond that, Americans must see incivility for the existential crisis it is and stop rewarding it with their votes or their eyes and ears.
Kansas City’s Emanuel Cleaver showed us how. Sometimes you just have to walk away.
Especially when, ironically enough, you’re supposed to be at a meeting on civility as Cleaver was Tuesday.
This editorial first appeared in The Kansas City Star.