When I was invited to participate in a “civility forum” at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Senior College Sept. 30, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was this another exercise in deploring something practically everybody already believes — that we’re experiencing the most uncivil behavior we’ve yet seen in the public sphere, reaching to the highest office in the land — or something else?

Fortunately, it was the latter: a fascinating glimpse at what better political behavior could look like, with practical suggestions on how to start improving things. It was a discussion beginning locally that could be applied globally.

Mark Hews, state coordinator for the National Institute for Civil Discourse, shared the platform with me, representing one side of the political equation, and Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican who’s represented the Augusta area for the past eight years, on the other. The good news is that here, we’re on the same side.

As with Washington, D.C., we’re well aware of the dysfunction that’s gripped the State House. What we haven’t always noticed is where that dysfunction was located. The Maine Senate, unlike the House, did its job, and did it civilly.

As Sen. Katz pointed out, Senate President Mike Thibodeau is as conservative a Republican as they come — Katz is more moderate — yet Thibodeau didn’t participate in any of the dysfunction, including a threatened, then actual state shutdown, or this year, interminably extending the “short” session. Thibodeau provided a model of good behavior, calling out the governor when necessary, and supporting Democratic colleagues when he thought they were right.

So what’s needed now? We explored the basics of defusing conflict, and how to communicate in public so as to disagree without being disagreeable, in the classic phrase.

For me, it starts with a deeper form of listening. Hear out the other person, not simply by waiting until they’re finished, but by showing, in one’s own response, that you’ve heard and understand what they’re saying.

No one needs to give up cherished beliefs, nor should they. But listening and responding in this way brings about surprising changes in one’s own thinking, and sometime about our positions and convictions, too.

The better news is that there are things to do that could improve the situation markedly. We talked a lot about legislative term limits, and how summarily removing rank-and-file legislators has made it difficult, if not impossible, to build the civil relations that would help solve legislative problems, rather than just recycling them every two years.

When I interviewed a Vermont state senator about who he looked up to — in a citizen legislature that functions far better than Maine’s does now — he said it was usually those who’d served at least a decade, who knew how things worked and what might be possible.

Those legislators can’t exist in Maine, and Katz himself, departing after the legally mandated eight years, is an example of what we’re continually losing. Since voters have already turned down extending term limits once, we could try a different course: amending the law so it applies only to presiding officers, which would solve the problem of unlimited tenure by a single House speaker that the original referendum sought to fix.

There are other benefits that modified term limits would offer, but having lawmakers know each other and be able to talk civilly amid the strains that any legislative session produces might be the most important one.

We can apply the same logic to Washington. When I hear Congressman Bruce Poliquin say he’s proud of not living in Washington, and that he sleeps in his congressional office, I think, “He’s not even getting to know his own colleagues.” A much better idea, it seems to me, is Sen. Angus King’s project of inviting two senators, one Democrat and one Republican, to dinner so they can find out more about each other.

Sen. Katz came up with another practical suggestion. When the House and Senate seating charts are made up next year, why not intersperse the two parties, rather than having all Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other, as in Congress?

Since lawmakers, at least in Augusta, spend so much time in session, seatmates and neighbors get to know each other in ways that help them think new thoughts, find common bonds, and — perhaps — improve legislation rather than trying to vote it down or force it through. I believe it would help, possibly a lot.

Civil discourse is what a philosopher might call a “negative virtue,” one that doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. Yet we need it urgently, because without it we are lost in the political wilderness.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 33 years. His new book is “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine.” He welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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