Reclaiming Civility in American Politics

Last night I attended a forum where Spencer Cox, Governor of u Utah and Wes Moore, Maryland’s governor discussed the idea to “Disagree Better.”  That is the initiative Cox has put forth in his term as chairman of the National Governor’s Association.

The effort is to model how leaders in positions of accountability can avoid polarization and conflict even when they disagree, but instead learn by listening to contrary points of view.

Cox initiated this approach to leadership in this joint campaign ad in 2020 with his democratic opponent:


The two governors are supporting the Disagree Better theme by telling their learnings from each other’s policy successes.  They shared multiple examples from addressing childhood poverty, transgender rights,  and a “year of service” for high school graduates.

Their bottom line is that everyone wants to be heard—it’s the most fundamental principle of democratic governance.  Leaders need to model the ability to listen and the importance of showing up or a “presence” even if not in supporter’s districts.  They suggested  most issues are not binary, that is a right or wrong solution, but are open to multiple outcomes.

An example of a civic initiative by Moore was the year of service Maryland offers to high school graduates who may not wish to go on to college or work immediately.  Participants can choose from multiple areas of interest from environmental to personal care roles.

His observation is that “service is sticky.”  It can lead to lifelong friendships (eg military service), builds community and creates the capacity to unite to solve problems later.

In their interchange they talked how to avoid the public polarization on which much of media today thrives.  How do political leaders become the adults in the room when national politicians thrive on creating conflict?

Their response:  Never forget who put you in the position you hold.  People became angry when they feel they are forgotten.  Each of us stands on the shoulders of others who brought us to this point.

The Credit Union Lessons

Moore’s description of how ”service is sticky,” is exemplified in the most successful credit unions.  They raise up their members in the community and become an essential part of its character.

But I think the example of open, public dialogue that draws from each person’s leadership experience approach to their role, is one credit unions can learn from.

NCUA legal counsel has interpreted the law to say that two board members may not speak to each other except in the context of a public meeting.  But what if the public board meetings are not real conversations, with members reacting and learning from each other’s positions?  What if they are just written recitations of decisions arrived in advance?

The Kabuki theater of today’s public process minimizes  the professional capabilities of board members and of the professionals who are supposedly briefing them.  Instead staff read prepared answers to questions given in advance.   Credit unions and members deserve to see their leaders as actual leaders, not performers looking at slides or presenting prepared remarks.

The Public Forum

Another opportunity for real dialogue between credit unions and NCUA is the GAC.  When I was at NCUA, it was routine for CUNA’s governmental affairs committee to hold their pre-conference sessions with Washington staff and credit union members from around the country.  Ed Callahan, Bucky and I would be invited just to listen to these legislative and regulatory priorities or concerns.  Not to speak, unless asked, but to listen.

After presenting the annual Chairman’s update at theGAC, Ed and senior NCUA staff would then sit in the Hilton’s café space at tables talking with all comers—often for hours.  Impromptu conversations about whatever people wanted to say.

Today those opportunities are rare.  In discussing NCUA issues my experience has been that the dialogue often is about who is wrong or right.  It is not a search for options, or a better or more just solution.  It becomes a defense of the status quo.

This inability to learn by listening carries over to staff.  Following a board meeting last fall I wrote to ask for clarity on a single number—was the ratio on an annual basis or for the entire period? After hearing nothing for several weeks, I followed up and was told PACA had to approve the response.   The explanation came a week later.  The answer was at best unclear, and could have been taken care of in a 30 second phone call.

Whether one is an elected governor or an appointed NCUA senior leader, the most important role is modeling the behavior that you believe consistent with democratic governance.

Do you want to learn by listening or instruct by preaching?  Are you open to meeting with those who disagree, or just exchange written communications restating positions?  Are democratic norms encouraged or priorities set by a political agenda?  Do we remember we stand on the shoulders of those whose work preceded ours, or do we think the present belongs wholly to our dispensation?

Polarization or civility – can the cooperative system be the example that demonstrates  the values that America urgently needs for democratic institutions to succeed?

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