Civility 101: Michigan Political Leadership Program Puts Politeness Back Into Politics

By Dawson Bell

Page 26

The original inspiration for the Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP) at Michigan State University (MSU) came from Robert Mitchell, an official with former Gov. Jim Blanchard’s administration, who was deeply concerned about increasing partisanship in the legislative process.

During his 22 years of public service, Mitchell felt candidates should be trained on how to properly serve in government before running for office. The answer was to create a program so applicants could develop cross-party relationships, hone their skills for getting elected, and learn how to effectively govern in a bipartisan spirit. MPLP’s founders feared doing nothing would lead the state down a darker path.

Today, as the constantly changing cast of characters in Lansing seems to become more rancorously partisan, state politics are at a low ebb of ugliness.

The program aims to relieve — at least on a limited scale — some of the rancor. On that score, it appears to be working. Graduates (there have been more than 600) attest to the value of having spent monthly weekends with classmates of very different backgrounds and political proclivities.

Kenneth Cockrel Jr., an MPLP alum and 16- year Detroit city councilman and interim mayor who now heads Habitat for Humanity Detroit, calls his experience “invaluable.” The lifelong Democrat said that is due in part because of his interaction with colleagues he otherwise would have never met. More than 20 years on, Cockrel said he counts MPLP classmates, such as former Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche and Aaron Payment, the elected chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, as good friends.

Anne Mervenne, the Republican co-director of MPLP, said she regularly hears about — and derives deep satisfaction from — former MPLP participants who are working with each other to solve problems.

“Personal relationships translate into cooperation,” she said. “We’re not trying to get people to agree with each other. We’re trying to get them to understand each other.”

U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI 12) has served on the program’s advisory board for more than a decade. She calls the program “more relevant than ever.”

“If you don’t have relationships (with political opponents), it’s easy to demonize them,” she said. “When you have relationships, you learn to listen. And when you listen to each other … you sometimes find solutions.”

Each class of 24 fellows is carefully selected to achieve political, gender, racial

and geographic balance, said MSU trustee Dianne Byrum, a former co-director of MPLP and former Democratic lawmaker.

“It creates opportunities for dialogue. But by itself, it certainly can’t solve the issue of (restoring) civil discourse. It’s no panacea. This program can’t overcome all the other forces (undermining civility,” she said.

There is an “art” to effective legislating, said Mervenne’s Democratic counterpart, Steve Tobocman, a former House majority leader who now serves as director of Global Detroit. MPLP helps master the art, he said, including how to work effectively with political opponents. But much of the climate of vitriol comes not from elected officials, but their constituents, he added, who for various reasons are alienated and disenchanted with the current state of American democracy.

“There are lots of things that can be done,” Tobocman said. “(MPLP) is one, but we didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to fix it overnight.”

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.

Sen. Orrin Hatch: I Am Re-Committing to Civility

Restoring civility in American politics was one of the three pillars of the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference. This pillar encouraged business and civic leaders to shape public discourse to restore the art of compromise for progress in today’s polarized political environment. The effort didn’t end at the Conference. As a To-Do list item, the Detroit Regional Chamber will continue to encourage civility in the Detroit region. This article, originally published via news outlets and other websites, is an example of others in the community joining the movement to promote civility.   

From Time Magazine

By Sen. Orrin Hatch

June 28, 2017

An active shooter recently attempted to assassinate Republican members of Congress at an early morning baseball practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Days earlier, a man spewing anti-Muslim hate speech fatally stabbed two individuals on public transport in Portland, Oregon. The month before, protesters came to fisticuffs at dueling political rallies in Berkeley, California.

Events such as these add to the growing sense that something has broken in our politics. Something that once moderated our partisan feelings and bridled our baser instincts has gone missing in an era of unprecedented polarization. Something fundamental to our civic culture has been lost amid the chaos and disruption of the Information Age.

The question is, What has been lost?

In a word: civility.

Civility is the indispensable political norm. It is the public virtue that has greased the wheels of our democracy since its inception. Although nowhere mandated in our Constitution, civility is no less essential to the proper functioning of our government than any amendment, court ruling or act of Congress. Without it, little separates us from the cruelty and chaos of rule by force.

For decades, civility has acted as the levee protecting our society from its own worst impulses. But that levee now shows signs of strain as political passions spill over into open violence.

In the wake of the attack on members of Congress, I have reflected at length on the circumstances that led us to this point. While it may be difficult to trace the erosion of civility to any single factor, one thing is certain: Our nation cannot continue on its current path. Either we remain passive observers to the problem, or we endeavor to act, to make the necessary changes — in ourselves, in our families and in our communities — that will lead to a more civil, prosperous society.


MORE: Civility in American politics is part of the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference To-Do List. Learn more about the list and see the other to-dos here.


Restoring civility to the public square won’t happen overnight — but it must happen.

The first step is to speak responsibly.

Our words have consequences, and in an age of retweets, viral videos and shareable content, those words often echo well beyond their intended audience and context. It’s incumbent on all of us, then — from the President to Congress on down — to be responsible for our speech.

I will be the first to admit to saying things over the course of my public service that I later came to regret. In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to indulge in irresponsible rhetoric. But we must avoid this temptation. Whether in town halls, casual conversations with neighbors or posts on social media, we must likewise refrain from dehumanizing, demeaning or unfairly disparaging the other side. And we must resist the impulse to frame every tiny policy disagreement as a zero-sum struggle for the soul of the country. We must restore sense, decency and proportion to our political speech.

The second step is practicing media mindfulness.

Just as the food we eat affects the body, the information we consume affects the mind. The daily consumption of media that presents only one political viewpoint — whether conservative or liberal — cocoons the mind in a safely sealed ideological echo chamber. An imbalanced media diet shrinks our perception of reality, which in turn limits our capacity for empathy and our ability to engage civilly with others.

To better understand how the other side thinks and feels, we must make a conscious effort to diversify our media intake. This exercise in empathy may not heal decades-old political divisions or usher in a post-partisan age. But it will at least help us break free from party groupthink and be better prepared to engage in civil debate with friends and neighbors.

The next step toward civility is to venture beyond the comfortable confines of our social circles.

Americans today are much less likely to marry, date or even live near people of the opposing party. Increasingly, we sort ourselves by ideology and lifestyle — a phenomenon that only increases polarization over time.

How can we expect to engage politically with members of the opposing party if we don’t even interact socially with one another? Like limiting our media consumption, only associating with those who hold our same values and opinions distorts our perception of the other side. It has an “othering” effect so severe that Republicans and Democrats — freedom-loving men and women who share the same country and many of the same values — increasingly see each other as enemies.

In the spirit of civility, we would all do well to make friends with members of the opposing party. I speak from personal experience.

When I first came to Washington, the culture of Congress was vastly different than it is today. There was a level of respect and congeniality among colleagues that was hard to find anywhere else. Some of my best friends were Democrats. One moment, we would be yelling at each other on the Senate floor; the next, we would be laughing together over family dinner. In those days, Republicans and Democrats locked horns often, but we also loved each other.

I worry that those special relationships have been lost today. In 2017, Republican and Democratic Members of Congress seldom socialize outside of votes and committee hearings. We used to break bread together; our spouses used to plan weekend trips; our children used to attend the same schools. But today, our families barely know each other — if they know each other at all. In the weekly race to return to our home states as soon as possible, we miss out on opportunities to share with one another the more intimate, humanizing parts of our lives. As a result, something vital has been lost. We now struggle to see the common humanity in the other side, and we increasingly treat each other as opponents rather than friends.

I’m grateful for the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who taught me that the bonds of friendship are stronger than any partisan pull. When I first joined the Senate, I thought Teddy would be an adversary. Instead, we became the best of friends.

Teddy and I were a case study in contradictions. He was born into privilege; I was brought up in poverty. He was an East Coast liberal; I was a Reagan conservative. He was a Catholic; I was a Mormon. Yet time and again, we were able to look past our differences to find areas of agreement and forge consensus. Had Teddy and I chosen party loyalty over friendship, we would not have passed some of the most significant bipartisan achievements of modern times — from the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the Ryan White bill and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

My unlikely friendship with Ted Kennedy is but a small example of what our nation can accomplish if we choose respect and comity over anger and discord. Only by doing so can we look beyond the horizon of our differences to find common ground.

Today, I want to make a personal commitment to exercise greater civility in my day-to-day interactions with fellow Americans; I hope you will join me in doing the same.

Read the original op-ed here.


More on civility in politics:

Column: Let’s improve our civility in discourse

Michael Beschloss: Effective Leaders Embody Guts, Persuasiveness, Sense of History and Civility

Column: Let’s improve our civility in discourse

Restoring civility in American politics was one of the three pillars of the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference. This pillar encouraged business and civic leaders to shape public discourse to restore the art of compromise for progress in today’s polarized political environment. The effort didn’t end at the Conference. As a To-Do list item, the Detroit Regional Chamber will continue to encourage civility in the Detroit region. This article, originally published via news outlets and other websites, is an example of others in the community joining the movement to promote civility.   

From The Detroit News

By Anne Mervenne and Steve Tobocman

June 22, 2017

We are inspired and encouraged that restoring civility in American politics was one of the three pillars at this year’s Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference. Daily, if not hourly, our airwaves and computer news feeds are filled with cringe-worthy words, images and actions. Insulting commentary is reported and repeated. Hurtful words and deeds are liked, promoted and shared.

Yet, we see hope. Since its founding in 1992, the Michigan Political Leadership Program, one of the nation’s only bipartisan training programs which is at home in Michigan State University’s College of Social Science, has recruited, trained and, hopefully, inspired public policy leaders. Each year, MPLP offers 24 MPLP Fellows, from all the political spectrum, the vision, commitment and skills to govern from the grassroots and local office to the state Capitol.

Realistically, it will take more than a single discussion to end hyper-partisanship and restore a sense of civility. We must start by building civil habits early in political careers and encouraging leaders to live and treat others as they would seek to be treated, a kind of political “golden” rule.

As co-directors of MPLP, we offer a hopeful outlook.


MORE: Civility in American politics is part of the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference To-Do List. Learn more about the list and see the other to-dos here.


We strive for civil conversations in a multipartisan learning environment that takes our MPLP Fellows from hands-on visits to corporate headquarters, to tours of communities they’ve never visited, to the sharing of personal revelations.

We ask fellows from opposing parties to overnight together as part of routine MPLP experiences. We ask them to host events and complete assignments together, regardless of political party.

We know their success stories: MPLP graduates make up 10 percent of the seats in the last three Michigan Legislatures. MPLP ranks include such notables as Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Ken Cockrel Jr., former Detroit mayor and city council member.

Civility and bipartisanship start at home — at the local level and in our state Legislature.

Equally notable are hundreds of MPLP Fellows who occupy village, city, county, school and even precinct offices. In our first-ever research of the fates of our MPLP graduates, we have found that MPLP Fellows are twice as likely to run for public office and three times as likely to win as those equally rated applicants who haven’t taken part in the program.

We are truly proud to say that nearly half go on to hold elective or appointed office.

The Detroit News recently asked: “Can Mackinac confab make political civility cool again?” The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Bureau Chief Gerald F. Seib has also asked: “Civil Discourse in Decline: Where Does It End?”

Read the original article here.


More on civility in politics:

Michael Beschloss: Effective Leaders Embody Guts, Persuasiveness, Sense of History and Civility