Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Middle School Politics: State of the Union Seating Rules

While Martin Luther King Day may have conjured up images of courageous sit-ins last week, members of Congress have been trying to stage a sit-in of their own. Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado has proposed that politicians sit with members of the opposite party during the president’s annual State of the Union address tonight. Udall makes some good points in his proposal letter, including, “The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room – while the other side sits – is unbecoming of a serious institution.”

Udall’s calls of bipartisan squattage seem to have caught on, with more than 25 members of Congress supporting the idea. The true test will take place on January 25, when Congress members file into the Chamber and pick their seats.

Expectations for the middle-school era seating rules are running high in Washington. Udall’s letter says that it is an opportunity “to bring civility back to politics.” Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski has said that it is “a good first step towards greater civility.” Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown went so far as to invoke MLK’s name, saying, “I think Dr. King would appreciate the bipartisanship that I have shown that others have shown.”

The back-slapping and feelings of self-satisfaction may be premature. The very fact that sitting next to someone from the opposite party is seen as major progress–indeed, something to make Martin Luther King proud–simply proves that something needs to be done to return civility to politics. And by something, I mean something with a little more shelf life than the length of a presidential speech. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner sitting next to each other for the length of a short movie is not going to get much, if anything, done.

Ira Katznelson, author of Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns and political science and history professor at Columbia University, says that the participation will likely be underwhelming, “A small number of individuals, I suspect, will act on this idea, and more only if the leadership of both parties joins in the promotion, which seems quite unlikely.” He also says that should the seating occur as Udall would like it, the underlying policy fight remain: “I think the impact would be modest, at best, since both mass and elite polarization are quite real, and differences of perspective and opinion are very sharp. Still, the tone might change, if modestly, while the policy fight goes on.”

The reason for the seating statecraft stems from the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. The tragedy forced politicians and pundits to tone down the rhetoric, at least as long as Giffords’ condition remained uncertain. Once it became clear that she would live, the blame and self-victimization began. Many looked at Sarah Palin’s map which contained crosshairs over Giffords’ district. This prompted Palin to compare treatment of her to centuries of anti-Semitism. Rush Limbaugh said that Jared Lee Loughner had the full support of the nation’s Democrats. A song began making its way around Twitter called “Sarah Palin Battle Hymn.” Recorded back in October, the song’s unfortunate resurgence was exacerbated by lyrics like, “Sarah Palin, she won’t listen to their bunk / Sarah Palin’s going south to hunt some skunk.”

Sitting Democrat-Republican-Democrat is not going to curb this type of militant language and rhetoric by itself. It may be a good start, but taking the word “killing” out of the official title of the act to repeal the last Congress’ health care law may be a better one. It could move things in the right direction, but so could having a modicum of decency and not playing the victim while six people were mourned and others held on for dear life. It may begin the movement toward civility in politics and punditry, but it needs to be recognized as an extremely small gesture up against much larger examples of political incivility. The last thing that the seating arrangement should be is an example of post-partisan politics heralded by politicians as an excuse to continue their polarizing ways.

Photo - Senator Mark Udall (Washington Post)

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