Last week, Senator Marco Rubio gave a groundbreaking speech on the Senate floor, about a topic that seems all but lost in today’s political landscape: civility. Given on the heels of the imposition of Senate Rule 19 on Senator Warren, Rubio’s address is much needed. However, he did not speak in direct support of McConnell’s deployment of the rule. He spoke instead to the overarching theme of partisan division in Washington. Specifically, its effect on the ability of members of Congress to communicate, and its ramifications for the nation as a whole.
He said, “I want people to think about our politics here today in America because I am telling you guys I don’t know of a single nation in the history of the world that has been able to solve its problems when half the people in a country absolutely hate the other half of people in that country. This is the most important country in the world. And this body cannot function if people are offending one another, and that’s why those rules are in place.”
Rubio spoke about Rule 19, which prevents one Senator from impugning another, through the lens of free speech. Rubio is the son of Cuban immigrants, who fled persecution and oppression in Castro’s Cuba. He knows its value firsthand; that it is the foundation separating free and prosperous nations from those that are not. But as Rubio points out, free speech does not mean the ability to speak in an unfiltered manner. It means the ability to have a free and open discussion about ideas; for those holding opposing viewpoints to discuss them openly, and most importantly, with respect. He said that the Founding Fathers acknowledged that the ability to hold free and open debates would be “…impossible if in fact, matters became of a personal nature.” In essence, if Senators are engaging in personal attacks, they are abandoning debates about the issues themselves. They are ignoring topics of substance in favor of obtaining the moral high ground.
He noted the nominations of Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry. While contentious and divisive things were written and spoken about them in the press, etc., he was proud to observe (both as a civilian in the nomination of Clinton, and as a Senator in that of Kerry) that the Senate committees did not involve personal attacks of either individual into the hearings. They remained focused on the issues. What Warren sought to achieve through her remarks was not to illustrate a substantive point about a particular viewpoint of Sessions with which she disagreed. Her goal was simply to berate the Senator. As Rubio states, he would support the prohibition of such actions, whether employed by a Democrat, or a fellow Republican. They are obstructive, unproductive, and serve only to further widen the partisan divide.
He then issued a sobering observance. He encouraged listeners to recall countries that engage in personal attacks as a practice in their political discourse. He mused: “ Turn on the news and watch these parliaments around the world where people throw chairs at each other, and punches, and ask yourself how does that make you feel about those countries? It doesn’t give you a lot of confidence in those countries. Now I’m not arguing that we’re anywhere near that here tonight, but we’re flirting with it. We’re flirting with it in this body and we are flirting with it in this country. We have become a society incapable of having debates anymore.”
He continued, noting that currently, debates about key issues in America are accompanied not by those espousing one viewpoint acknowledging and disagreeing with those of another on its merits. Rather, they are immediately met with defensive rhetoric from those who disagree. He warns, “…I’m just telling you guys, we are reaching a point in this Republic where we’re not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.”
The partisan-induced political street fights and gridlock also has a trickle down effect. If citizens see their representatives time and again cling to their partisanship, using it not as a guide, but as a blunt instrument against their political counterparts, they will do the same. It turns the dividing line between seats on the aisle into a canyon; leaving those on either side unreachable. It creates a nation of enemies.
What Rubio is saying is, that engaging in personal attacks as part of the political discourse is a slippery slope. It can sow seeds of disrespect, which can grow into weeds that strangle a once prosperous democracy. Divide and conquer. Once we are divided, we can be more easily conquered. We cannot allow that to happen.
I used many lengthy quotes by Rubio in this article, by design. It is imperative to understand what is at stake at this moment in our nation’s history. Our continued unwillingness to put our differences aside and have rational, substantive debates with our peers across the aisle will prevent us from working together for the good of the country. In a battle for ideological superiority, our country and freedom will be collateral damage.
In the wake of Trump’s press conference, Flynn’s resignation, and increasing evidence that senior Trump administration officials had contact with top Russian officials throughout the course of the 2016 election, there is no more important time than now for Democrats and Republicans to bridge their partisan divide, and work together to find the truth, and for the good of the country. If they do not, this nation’s turmoil will continue, leaving us vulnerable to attack (both from outside actors as well as those from the inside, like Steve Bannon). That is a historical precedent we do not want to set. The future of this country depends on the ability of members of Congress (and citizens) to work together, towards the common good. It is time to take the blinders off and put country over party.