Tone at the Top: Rebooting Democracy’s Dialogue

The TakeAway: We must hold lawmakers accountable to high standards of statecraft, just as we hold ourselves accountable when engaging on ‘hot button’ issues such as corporate accountability, sustainability, and human rights.

It was a high-minded day.  Following a Native American blessing and other remarks, last night President Obama called for civility and national unity at the memorial service for Tucson’s shooting victims.  Earlier, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) gave an emotional speech on the House floor after introducing a resolution honoring those who were killed or wounded, and called upon the membership to “carry on a dialogue of democracy”.  One by one, members of Congress rose to pay tribute to their colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who continued to fight for her life.  On Tuesday, President Clinton said the tone of political debate must change.

While these are sincere and heartfelt statements about collective aspirations and commitments, they’re undermined by Congressional images and vocabulary.  Despite calls for civility, some House leaders responsible for financial reform, climate policy, health care, and other critical problems continue to use incitive sound bites.  Since taking over last week, the House has turned up the rhetorical heat at a time when cooler heads and bipartisan problem solving must prevail.  It’s time for Congress to abandon polarizing language and restore decency and integrity to the business of statecraft.  It’s also time for us to hold them accountable, just as we hold ourselves accountable through stakeholder engagement on controversial topics affecting corporate accountability, sustainability, human rights, and other issues where reasonable people disagree.

Just how shrilly partisan have our Congressional workspaces become?  Consider these committees having jurisdiction over contentious issues:

  • The default website for the House Committee on Energy & Commerce, with responsibilities for climate change and energy policy, is dominated by Republican partisan messages and makes no mention of Democrat committee members.  In fact, the Democrats have their own website—policy apartheid on one of the nation’s oldest standing committees.

In addition to the visuals, it’s the adjectives and ungrounded assertions that stand out—qualities not conductive to deliberative dialogue.   The “Collateral Damage” page asserts that the Democrats “rushed through” a bill that “failed to address the real causes of the financial crisis” and claims, among other things, “the Democrats used the crisis to pursue their long-term goals of a government managed economy”.  As we reported last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) introduced a bill to repeal Dodd-Frank.  Informed observers believe it’s unlikely to garner needed votes but will whip up emotion over the ongoing financial crisis.  Meanwhile, the FinServ website is peppered with PR releases (written on the URL) from “Chairman Bachus”—issued before Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) became chair.

Over on the Energy & Commerce Committee website, you’re faced with a colorful display of Republican press releases that signal the intent of Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the new chair, to seek repeal of  “budget-busting job-killing Obamacare”.  There’s also a box for “Republican Tweets” and one for YouTube videos featuring Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the unsuccessful candidate for reappointment as Committee chair, who’s prepared to do battle with the EPA and “Obamacare”, while “saving” the incandescent light bulb.  The Democrats have their own Energy and Commerce Committee website, partisan yet more broadly informative, which features a tribute to Rep. Giffords along with links to earlier legislation and archived news releases from former chair Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).

As for the Rules Committee, its postings promise to revive the divisive health care debate, but within a changed political landscape.  Next week’s revival serves as a test of the political truce over tone—which applies to digital discourse as well as speeches from the floor.

Since Saturday’s shootings, the flood of opinion on gun control and mental illness have also raised many questions about whether our politics is broken, our public rhetoric tainted, our ability to disagree cramped by a media hungry for ratings, our asymmetric vulnerability to crackpots heightened by hostile rhetoric and fabrications.  While no one’s proven motive beyond madness as responses to Tucson’s tragedy continue to sort themselves out, most agree we live in a highly volatile, polarized political environment that’s gotten worse in the past few years.

“We have just come through a season when the airwaves were filled with the rhetoric of armed insurrection,” MurnPost co-founder Bob Massie wrote on Tuesday, calling for a “new song of sorrow”.

As President Obama said last night, “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

Let the first step begin with Congress, because that’s the arena where high-minded rhetoric is most tested.  And let the rest of us be diligent in reminding them, and ourselves, to align our values with our actions—which stakeholder engagement practitioners and other decent people try to do every day.

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10 Responses to Tone at the Top: Rebooting Democracy’s Dialogue

  1. David Brader says:


    In general I enjoy getting your posts and keeping up with your perspectives on the Sustainability sector. However, I am a bit disappointed to see this particular article for a number of reasons.

    1. The correlation being made – rhetoric leading to unsustainable conditions – does not exist. Our history has been filled with, in general, more heated rhetoric and even greater divides, and that is and always shall be, the reason that this country should have the greatest flexibility in adapting to ever changing geopolitical stimuli.

    2. Benjamin Franklin made a statement that reads along these lines: He who gives up any liberty for even the slightest increase in security deserves neither. This is a slippery slope to start down, I for one do not believe we benefit from language and thought police. Who will be the external objective body to parse through the dictionary eliminating the words to be banned and identifying the rhetoric criminals and exacting discipline? Where will that stop? Will it stop, short of becoming a real life 1984?

    3. Sustainability, if it is to survive, must be kept separate from political debates else it too become victim to political ideologies and miss the target of true objectivity.

    4. The root cause of the Arizona Tragedy, the Financial Crisis and our lack of movement on Sustainability as a whole is the same – the U.S. has become of culture devoid of accountability. That is however, wholly different from saying that politicians are accountable for a crime due to words they used that were mangled and distorted by a twisted individual. If that be the case, then every single person in the U.S. is guilty of damaging crimes as there is not one among us who has never said anything that could have been inflammatory to the wrong mind.

    Please keep the articles and debate focussed on our fight here, and it is a fight, to defend the common sense of sustainability against the mindless dismissal by the shortsighted.



    • Thanks very much, Dave, for taking the time to share your thoughts. I think we are on the same wavelength, more than it may appear. Let me respond to each point:

      1) I believe that we create the conditions in which we live, that our institutions, policy, and larger frames of meaning are created with human hands and hearts. Rhetoric does count. It shapes opinion. It influences how people behave. And it very much has the power to do damage–maybe not as much as temperature changes in the physical world, but certainly in the realm of human psychology and behavior. My fear is not that we’ll become a 1984. My fear is that we’ll become so inured to violence and pain that we resort to inflammatory language just to get a point across. In a hyper media environment where it’s hard to distinguish signal from static, that’s often a route taken.

      2) That said, coming, as I do, from a Republican political background — Michigan, the Eisenhower / Rockefeller kind — I’m the last person to give up liberty, but I’m the first to maintain decorum and good manners. I did not suggest anywhere in this post that we should have thought police or regulation. I do think we need Miss Manners — or at least a more widely accepted set of voluntary agreements about how we treat each other, and what vocabulary we’ll use in doing so. I was brought up to respect other people, even if you didn’t agree with them–and believe me, there were enough dinner table arguments (and kicks under the table from Mom when I was acting improperly) to learn how to do that without resorting to low blows and catcalling.

      3) I don’t see how sustainability — or any other important topic — can be kept separate from political debate because I view the world through the optic of politics–meaning power relationships. Politics is in the room (as are a number of other things), whether we like it or not. The question becomes, How do we deal with that? How do we enact a politics that elevates us, rather than diminishes us? How can we recognize that decisions that are made need to be mindful of a greater good, beyond immediate self or group interests? How can we find those points of common ground, amidst the conflicting ideologies, because what’s at stake is human and ecological well-being? Politics has helped drive the race to the bottom, which brings me to your 4th point. Before getting to that, however, let me also say that I do not believe in “pure objectivity”. Having spent years and years studying this kind of thing, I’ve come to the conclusion that all perspectives are situated within a larger framework that’s culturally influenced–not really determined, but influenced. Even “pure science” is not objective–it’s based on a history of experiments, similar to case law, that periodically gets turned on its head. I love that part. It means none of we humans have final authority on what’ really going on–what Wittgenstein meant, I believe, at the end of the Tractatus when he talked about “throwing away the ladder”.

      4) I agree with you completely about the loss of accountability, and there are many reasons for that. True, we’re all culpable of inflicting injury, beyond what we know. But we cannot divorce our efforts to create a more sustainable and just world because we don’t want to engage in the dirty business of politics. Just the opposite. I worry that my colleagues in the sustainability movement view politics as a separate world, as if it has no influence on their efforts or outcomes. Well, it does. Whether with a capital “P” or a small “p”, as I said earlier, politics is always in the room (so, by the way, is religion). The way I see it, our problem here in the US is that we’ve become unmoored from a sense of civic virtue, a sense of citizenship, that calls us to make sacrifices on behalf of a greater good, in recognition that our obligations — and legacy — to those yet to be born are profoundly significant. Just as good citizenship calls us to duty on behalf of a larger community, so does sustainability call us to engage in activities and make decisions that are mindful of long-term consequences. In my book, this is where politics meets ethics, a crossroads that Aristotle described centuries ago. In many ways, we’re continuing this journey: engaged in a common struggle to make this world a better place, with all its flaws and terrible beauty.

      Thanks again for responding. I hope my response has been useful. Thanks, too, for all the work you do.

      With good wishes,


  2. David Brader says:


    I thank you greatly for your detailed and thoughtful response. I look forward to your efforts more deeply now than ever.



  3. Marcy, this is real powerful. Our work is united in the same outcome and with a different process, method and audience. All the same, I was overwhelmed by the fact that our Congress could be brought to tears. This clearly is a symbol of possibility that law, policy and legislation can include embracing a response to what is difficult that people in the past have distanced because of all the emotion and complexity.

    I believe that intangible metrics in organization and learning are going to be come stronger in use and practice than they have in the past. I have always appreciated the work of financial genius, Baruch Lev, out of NYU Stern School.

    His commitment not to sell his time as a consultant and do the work of an analyst and expert witness for Government and Wall Street is something worthy of note and learning.

    I was so passionate about his work no non tangibles, that I pushed my friend and colleague, Art Kleiner to profile Lev years ago. The profile can be found in the Strategy and Business archiver or at this webpage, (scroll down to the table embedded in the page to the 3rd box down to click on this title, “The World’s Most Exciting Accountant” by Art Kleiner .

    I hope to see you at the GRI meeting on Wall Street 1/31. If you want to join a lunch group of women leaders, I am organizing after the meeting, please—–email me. I am going to spark a very informal dialogue that some of us may write about.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Lavinia. I, too, am a fan of Baruch Lev’s–have a copy on one of my bookshelves of “Intangibles: Management, Measurement, and Reporting” (Brookings Press, 2001). He’s made important contributions to reframing how we think about accountability.

      As for GRI in NYC, not sure I’ll be there, but thanks for the invitation. And keep up the good work!



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  5. Marcy-
    For 8 years, we heard that “dissent was the highest form of patriotism” expressed often, and in the most shrill voices possible. Why now the change? Attempts to limit debate are always abhorrent, whether they come from the Left or the Right. We are a nation of ideas, and ideas are often expressed in heart-felt passion. It is hard to imagine a Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay or Thomas Jefferson recommending that debate be silenced, or their rhetoric modulated.

    • Thanks, as always, Russ, for your diligence and support.

      I’m not advocating in any way, shape, or form restrictions on debate. I’m arguing for higher standards of decency and respect. In a way, I’m arguing for ethics, for a revival in that sweet and sentimental, but very real, sense of civic virtue–where dissent meets decency, thus enabling genuine, authentic dialogue to occur. Otherwise, we hunker down and fire shots across the bow — literally and figuratively. We all know the drill: in families, when arguments begin, we know what happens when we use pejorative adjectives to characterize the motives of our kin. Those are fighting words, and descend into the depths of creative name calling.

      Why should we expect the same from our public leaders? I come from generations of public servants, and in my book, Congressional committees should be taken seriously as the working platforms of the nation’s business. Would you expect a business to label its committee work in such ways? Or an NGO? I don’t think so.

      Partisanship linked to purposeful work is fine with me, with an emphasis on “purposeful”. But if the intent is to generate useless noise and emotion, then I don’t think we’re being well-served. Meanwhile, the nation’s business remains undone, and we continue to fall behind in important areas such as energy, education, the economy, the list goes on.

      We can do better than that. We simply must.

      Again, thanks so much for your comments. Keep ’em coming!



  6. Felice says:

    These are good, thought provoking comments. I agree that we have a culture that, generally, does not seek or require accountability. And, I agree that there is an insufficient recognition of the value of the greater good. I suspect that this particular is due to the widening gap between the wealthy and the rest of us. The wealthy are benefitting; the middle class is shrinking; the poor are getting poorer. This is not a climate that fosters a greater good perspective.

    I also agree that there is no pure objectivity. However, I do believe that we should demand tangible support for phrases like “the job destroying bill”. Logic or data behind statements like this, at a minimum, should make all of us more thoughtful about these emotionally charged phrases.

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