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Why divided government would be less divisive

I will not try to play sociologist and weigh in on this issue except to say that there are indications that as a people we are becoming less civil -- just witness the attack journalism on cable television, the growing incidence of bullying in schools, the use of the Internet to smear those one does not like and the popular appeal of shows in which people are fired or voted off islands.

I am more confident in asserting that even if Washington leads the nation in incivility, it is not likely to change until those outside Washington demand it. What gets rewarded gets done, and for those of us in Congress, reelection is the ultimate reward. Voting out of office -- or not electing in the first place -- those who put partisanship over progress and conflict over compromise would create a very different legislative climate, one in which the objective is to solve the problem, not to win the debate.

It may not be easy to feel passionate about civility and compromise, but it is easy to feel passionate about a vibrant, just and prosperous America. To achieve that, however, we need to get passionate about electing legislators who not only work hard but work together.

Not long ago, I happened upon George Washington's "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior," a transcription of various guides to etiquette, written when Washington was but a teenager.

There are 110 points. First of all, be respectful. Second, if you itch, be careful where you scratch. Third, don't scare your friends. Fourth, in the presence of others, avoid humming or drumming your fingers. (I cannot tell you how wonderful it would be if humming and drumming were the greatest threats to civility in the Senate.)

It is not until No. 110 that young George got to the heart of the matter: "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."

That little spark lights our way much more brightly than bomb-throwing, scorched-earth, incendiary political rhetoric ever will.

Susan M. Collins is a Republican senator from Maine. This essay is adapted from the speech she delivered Tuesday for the Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program at Washington National Cathedral.

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