On Nov. 19, 2018, Siena College hosted the “Reforming Our Politics: How to Restore Civility to our Political System” event. This event included a discussion between former congressman of NY-19, Chris Gibson and current congressman of NY-20, Paul Tonko.
Intro remarks were provided by Dr. Leonard Cutler, Director of the Center for the Study of Government and Politics and Tyler Del Giudice ’19, who completed an internship for Tonko’s office.
The subject matter at hand concerned the loss of civility in today’s political climate. The Honorable Chris Gibson initiated the panel with his own remarks regarding the loss of civility the United States is facing. Politicians are increasingly engaging in conduct not appropriate for the influence they hold as public figures. The aggression and polarity witnessed today in the two major political parties is becoming an endemic, and Gibson pins this issue on the overall deficit of politicians who lead by example. Gibson remarked that, when politicians do not act professional or courteous to their colleagues, regardless of party affiliation, their conduct reflects onto the general public. It is easier for private citizens to be openly hostile towards others when the men and women intended to reflect the United States and its values are behaving the same way.
Gibson proceeds to refer to civility as “American exceptionalism.” As public figures behave informally in government, and as the media catalyzes the tensions facing both Democrats and Republicans, civility becomes increasingly rare and misconduct becomes normalized. Gibson extended on this point and mentioned that President Donald Trump did not create the divided climate that surfaced when he first ran for office, he simply exploited it. Gibson proceeded to remark that, so long as the public continues to elect officials who behave unprofessionally and without courtesy, this division in government will only expand and our representation will decline in quality. He mentioned that political reform is only made possible through the voters, and if the public does not pay attention, soon unqualified representatives will continue to find their way in government.
The Honorable Paul Tonko proceeded Chris Gibson’s remarks with full agreement on his discussion in the increasing divide in government. “I share values with Chris Gibson,” remarked Tonko. After stating this, he simply said, “That is something that is lost today.” As Tonko references Democrats’ and Republicans’ unwillingness to compromise or share in values or beliefs, the message resonated strongly, considering that both representatives were from the opposing political parties. Gibson further cited Tonko’s practice of taking his Republican colleagues out to dinner in order to connect and bond with them, and potentially resolve any differences. He believes that, by connecting and attempting to learn about colleagues from different political parties, it becomes easier to compromise and be willing to engage in healthy, civil discourse. Tonko further emphasized Gibson’s point of the voters creating political change. “Politics as a spectator sport needs to stop,” emphasized Tonko as he stressed how harmful inaction by voters is for representation as a whole.
The event was both informative and refreshing. Listening to two politicians from different political parties discuss the loss of civility in the United States was an enjoyable shift away from the tension in our government today.