So it has come to this: Our national mood has deteriorated to the point that it has become so partisan, so toxic and so contentious that dozens of civic groups have joined to promote a guide to keeping your Thanksgiving dinner conversation from degenerating into a shout-a-rama worthy of a cable news set.
Hold the snickering, though. Seventeen lawmakers taped heartfelt video messages reflecting on what glues us together as Americans — including the two House members whose job it is to keep their own party united against the opposition.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) delivered a message that carries special resonance just five months after a deranged, politically motivated gunman took aim at Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game, badly wounding Scalise and injuring others.
“We can debate, and we can feel strongly about our differences, but what we have in common is so much stronger, so much broader, and we need to keep remembering that,” Hoyer says.
Adds Scalise, “I personally have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, but we all do.”
The two men are promoting “Setting the Table for Civility,” an initiative that aims to get Americans talking about their divisions and the challenges the country faces with civility and in a productive manner.
“People are really nervous about their Thanksgiving tables, so we decided to create a tool kit, a conscious conversation kit, for how to help people sit at a Thanksgiving dinner table where they know the partisan divide is a real problem,” said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. “They want to have a good Thanksgiving, but they don’t want to get into conflict.”
The centerpiece of the tool kit is a series of three discussion questions: What are you most thankful for about living in America? How do you feel about the deep divisions and incivility we see now in our country? And what can we do to revive civility and respect and find more effective ways to work together? Families can also play a civility-themed game of Twenty Questions or draw on tips for “managing stress during difficult conversations.”
The NICD was created in 2011 after a shooting at an Arizona congressional constituent event left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D). But only in the past year or two, Lukensmeyer said, has the decline in American civility reached crisis levels.
“We didn’t see any of this level of literal anxiety about going to Thanksgiving dinner until last year,” she said. “We didn’t see it until the really, really vitriolic language in the presidential campaign took this to a different level. . . . Most Americans aren’t paying that much attention to what happens in Washington, D.C., but last year there was no way to avoid it. And the two candidates, as we both know, were among the most unlikable and unrespected that could have been put up to run against each other.”
Lukensmeyer said the incivility has continued to the point that she routinely gets calls from businesses and even religious congregations that need help persuading their employees or members to look past their political differences in order to get along.
“What we find really helps people . . . is learning again to listen to understand,” she said. “What in my life experience brought me to feel this way or make this judgment? . . . We’ve really gotten into, ‘There is a right position and there is a wrong position, and if you’ve got the wrong position, you’re a lesser person than I am.’ And that’s what we’ve got to come back from.”
Joan Mooney, president and chief executive of the Faith and Politics Institute, said it’s important to have politicians of both parties joining together to deliver that message.
“I think most people view politicians from the 10-second clip on the news where they’re the most exercised,” she said. “But they don’t see . . . that you have to live to fight another day, and you can’t cut off contact with people just because they think differently.”
Besides Hoyer and Scalise, the project also recorded messages from Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.). A trio of members from the Columbus, Ohio, area — Reps. Steve Stivers (R), Joyce Beatty (D) and Patrick J. Tiberi (R) — also participated.
Households who use the Setting the Table for Civility tools are invited to share the results using the social-media hashtag #ReviveCivility.