The decline of civility in political debate was alarming. Harsh rhetoric was getting in the way of resolving bitter disputes.
Worse yet, the nasty tenor of political discourse was so turning off young people that they were walking away from it, saying they didn’t want to get involved in such a nasty process.
Sounds like Washington today, right? Actually, it was Duluth, Minn., more than a decade ago as tensions rose over local budget strains. Then, as now on the national political stage, nastiness was becoming the norm, preventing well-intentioned people from coming together to solve problems.
The difference is that the leaders of Duluth decided to do something about it. Civic leaders launched something called Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project. They drew up a list of nine guidelines for civilized debate so simple they could and did fit on a wallet card.
Then, a funny thing happened. People took the idea to heart. All six major units of regional government—city and county boards and school districts—adopted the guidelines. As debate improved, so did the process of addressing problems. Today, Duluth’s mayor, Emily Larson, credits the civility project for helping the city work through an emotional, two-year debate over a new ordinance requiring employers to offer paid sick leave, which was adopted in May.
Is it naive to think that the experience of a city of 86,000 can be useful on a national scale? Perhaps. And maybe Minnesotans are just nicer than the rest of us.