Jim Elliott

There was a time that some look back at wistfully when politics was not so mean, and people of different parties mostly got along. That began changing in the late 1970s when a young candidate for Congress told a group of College Republicans in Atlanta what was wrong with the Republican Party: “One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.”

He then went on to say, “One of the great weaknesses of the Republican party is we recruit middle-class people. Middle-class people, as a group, are told you should not shout at the table, you should be nice, you should have respect for other people, which usually means giving way to them.” (West Georgia News 1978, referenced in PBS Frontline, “The Long March of Newt Gingrich”.)

That was on June 24th, 1978, and Newt Gingrich, later to become Speaker of the United States House of Representatives put paid to politeness. I sum up his political formula for winning as “demonize the opposition and turn out your loyal voters.” It worked wonders for the Republicans in the election of 1994, when they won control of Congress.

It worked wonders even without elections because moderate Republicans and Democrats chose to not run for re-election rather than face the character assassination they knew they would face if they ran, but it turned politics on its head and gave us the political “discourse” that we have today.

After forty years of watching our elected leaders shouting at the dinner table, to use Gingrich’s expression, citizens have reached the obvious conclusion that if they can do it, we can, too, so now we have citizens being angry and abusive at school board meetings, election offices, and county commissioners meetings.

Well, OK, those moderate Republicans and Democrats who left congress were powerful people and could expect to be challenged for having the courage to take positions that not everyone liked. The tragedy today is that those being hounded from local office are just ordinary people trying to do their job according to their sense of duty and adherence to the laws that govern their office.

That’s sad, but even sadder is that often they are not always protected from verbal abuse in public meetings by the elected officers running the meeting. So far as I know, no small-town clerk has been blown away for doing their job, but they have sure been threatened.

Armed men circling the Cascade County Courthouse while votes were being counted is intimidation of the first water. Those armed people circling the Courthouse in their outfits felt justified in doing what they did, I am sure, but feeling justified in our actions doesn’t mean they are right.

Harassing people in a public meeting is wrong, but it is just as wrong for the person in charge of that meeting to allow the harassment. That “middle class politeness” that Gingrich ridicules used to serve us as a guideline and was enough to keep meetings orderly.

But just in case that politeness isn’t enough to do the job, there are rules on how to conduct meetings that need to be followed. These rules apply to both officers and attendees and have been around for centuries. They need to be followed to protect people from harassment and protect everyone’s right to be heard. People who are in leadership need to show some.

Life is not fair; we all know that. But this nation was founded on the principle of making life fairer for everyone and one of the ways we do that is that silly middle-class politeness and not running people down, and not shouting at the dinner table.

Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.