What did you do on your summer vacation? I had this conversation.
"You’re Senator Bennett, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Tell me, is everything back there as confused and corrupt as it looks?”
The woman who asked this question had pretty well made up her mind that there were only two possible answers: “Yes,” or, “No, it’s worse.” She looked disappointed when I said, “Confused, yes; corrupt, no.”
Perhaps she was thinking of the biblical definition of corruption, the one that equates it with putrification. I was thinking of the dictionary definition which says that to corrupt is “to induce to willful unlawful conduct.” By that one, it is entirely possible to be misled, misinformed or just plain wrong and still not be corrupt. I am not nitpicking. “Corrupt” is a very strong word and if we are not careful in how we use it and others like it, there can be unfortunate consequences. Language matters in human relationships.
I recall a debate during which the language got pretty ugly on both sides. A few Democrats angrily accused us Republicans of “challenging the patriotism” of one of their leaders. In attempt to calm things down a bit, I said, in as calm a voice as I could, “I am not challenging his patriotism; I am challenging his wisdom.” After I made it clear where I thought he was wrong, point by point, the senator in question approached me, smiling, and patted my shoulder as he went by. With that gesture, he told me we could still work together, in spite of ideological differences.
By contrast, a different senator, away from the Senate floor, once publicly called a colleague “corrupt.” When called on it, he increased the rhetorical temperature even as he denied making the charge: “I didn’t say the senator is corrupt, I said the system is corrupt.” Instead of supporting future cooperation, he fed the idea that politicians become corrupt simply by taking office. The Internet is full of “facts” that “prove” this: “Members of Congress have voted themselves full salary for life. They don’t pay for their health care, are excused from Social Security taxes and get free haircuts.”
Newcomers to Congress quickly learn that none of these statements is true but some still begin their service believing that just being in the system might corrupt them. Saying, “I won’t let it happen to me,” they take pride in their refusal to cooperate in ways that make the system work. Many who won their seats by railing against “broken government” are now contributing to the process of breaking it even further.
It’s not just Congress. The president also indulges in rhetorical overkill, with damaging results. His bill to reform health care could easily have been a bipartisan one if his administration and its supporters had not been so arrogantly dismissive of Republican ideas. Harsh words are expected on the campaign trail, but the election is over and he won. He undermines his own credibility by using phrases that insult Republicans at the same time as he says he wants to work with them.
We have had bitter ideological divisions in this country before. Taking office when riots on campuses and bitterness over the Vietnam War were at their height, Richard Nixon, in his first inaugural address asked that we collectively “lower our voices.” That applies to words used and accusations made as much as it does to volume. If we are ever going to get back to a government of cooperation and compromise — the driving forces behind the creation of the Constitution — we should heed that advice.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.