<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Saturday,  July 20 , 2024

Linkedin Pinterest
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Project aims to save civic health

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:02am

As uphill battles go, this might be the Mount Rainier of Washington politics.

Polls routinely show that a strong majority of Americans believe “incivility” is a problem in U.S. politics. Most even feel it is a “serious” problem. And, we’re guessing, you would probably get a majority to say “yes” if you asked, “Is incivility caused by the jerks on the other side, who are destroying the country because they are dunderheads?”

Which, of course, is kind of the problem — a problem that can seem intractable. America’s political divide is so mountainous that we can’t agree on basic facts, and those mountains seem impossible to climb.

It can be depressing, but Denny Heck is an optimist.

Heck is a Vancouver native and former Democratic congressional representative who now is Washington’s lieutenant governor. As lieutenant governor, he has undertaken an ambitious project called The Project for Civic Health.

“We’ve got to do this,” he said this week during a visit with The Columbian’s Editorial Board. “We don’t have to hate each other because of politics.”

Many Americans would consider that anathema. A decade ago, I wrote a column expressing shock that a little less than one-third of Democrats and a little more than one-third of Republicans said positions supported by the other party are a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” “Seriously,” I wrote. “Many of us are so insulated in our ideological beliefs that we fear the other side is actually a danger to the country.”

Much has changed since then, when the issue seemed surprising. Now we can’t even agree on whether attacking the U.S. Capitol to halt the certification of a free and fair election is a crime or “legitimate political discourse.” (And in case you missed it, Donald Trump has said he would pardon people convicted of invading the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021).

Anyway, working with the Jackson Foundation (named for former U.S. Sen. Henry Jackson), the Evans School of Policy & Governance at the University of Washington, and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center (a joint endeavor between UW and Washington State University), Heck has convened roundtable discussions and a civic health summit. And he remains optimistic.

“I think I’ve learned through this journey that you put people around the table and you talk about it,” he said.

It’s a good idea, and it can’t hurt. But having people who already are civically engaged and already recognize the problem talk about it does not specifically engage the masses. And the masses have been fermenting in their political silos for decades.

To reach them, Heck’s group has some specific ideas. Among them:

  • Create training programs on respectful dialogue for candidates and elected leaders.
  • Celebrate, promote and reward bipartisan collaboration.
  • Bolster credible local news media.
  • Create vastly more robust civic education for children, youth and adults.
  • Build media literacy.

There are other ideas, as well, and they can be found at ProjectForCivicHealth.org.

Understandably, the focus on media particularly resonates. Various academic studies have demonstrated how a decline in local news outlets diminishes our democracy. Fewer people run for office, fewer bother to vote, and local governments are more prone to corruption. When you get your “news” from Facebook or X, you are misinformed; when you get it from cable networks, you are learning about everything but your community.

“My dad, who had an eighth-grade education, read two newspapers every day, front to back,” said Heck, who is 71 and graduated from Columbia River High School. “We knew more about our world. I don’t know how you can have a sense of community without that.”

The Legislature in recent years has worked to bolster civic education in schools, and numerous other groups are undertaking similar work. But the mountain in front of us remains daunting.