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Restoring Respect Conference: Steps Towards Civility in Politics

by Xander Pakzad, published
/ USD's Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice

Restoring Respect Conference: Steps Towards Civility in Politics Restoring Respect

The University of San Diego hosted the 2nd Annual Community Conference on Restoring Civility to Civic Dialogue on February 20. The 4-hour event, which was free and open to the public, drew over 200 attendees to discuss how civic dialogue in the United States can be made more respectful and in turn, more constructive. Tweet it: Tweet

Many notable figures appeared and spoke at the conference, including Reverend George Walker Smith, founder of The Catfish Club of San Diego. Both San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and City Council President Todd Gloria made unexpected appearances. The discussion panel leaders in politics and media such as State Senator Marty Block and Public Radio's Martha Barnette.

The keynote address was given by 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. Despite a lengthy career in journalism that has seen political dialogue reach new lows of integrity, he remains optimistic of a return to more civilized and productive conversations. Still, even he has doubts about the future of some issues --  namely campaign finance reform. Tweet at @Eugene_Robinson: Tweet

Initiatives such as Restoring Respect show that many citizens are fed up with this lack of decorum. There is only so much that the everyday person can do, though, because so many of our civic institutions have become inherently contentious.

By focusing on fair representation of voters and a more transparent legislative process, we can start to change how the civility of our government’s procedures and consequently our discussions thereof. Here are three examples from California that may gradually guide us in the direction of more civility in politics by taking down the barriers between the public and its governance.

1. Voters FIRST Act and California's Open Primary

After years of partisan bickering about the fairness of electoral boundaries, California approved Proposition 11 in 2008. Also known as the Voters FIRST Act, it created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, a panel of fourteen chosen to redraw lines for State Assembly and Senate seats.

Every ten years, the commission will meet to redraw the lines according to a specific set of criteria that ensure fair and unbiased representation. In addition, the panel welcomes input from a variety of non-profit organizations, public interest groups, and political parties. Share the news: Tweet

In 2010, Proposition 20 extended their duties to redrawing California’s congressional boundaries.

2010's Proposition 14 has had similar effects. The top two candidates are no longer defined by the two political parties. Politicians on the same side of the aisle now compete for votes, and as such, must be able to appeal to a wider variety of voters.

The commission and the top-two primary system have been heralded as critical steps towards representation that must appeal to a diverse electorate.

Without the ability to custom tailor district lines and rest on partisan politics, lawmakers must work across the aisle and consider groups of voters otherwise ignored by their parties. Extreme party-based values not only are discouraged, they're politically unsustainable.

The moderation and compromise that has arisen from the Voters FIRST Act and the open primary system provides a role model for the rest of the political milieu.

Last week, IVN covered the proven effectiveness of California's open primary system. Read more here.

2. California DISCLOSE Act

California’s SB 52 will impose new guidelines for political advertisers, forcing them to disclose their top three donors and making it easy to determine sources of funding for any type of ad. TV, radio, print, and websites for state campaigns will be required to clearly disclose their supporters. Tweet it: Tweet

Politicians must also explicitly state their approval in the same manner as federal ads. An examination of these new conditions and how they compare to current law is available here.

SB 52 will be modeled after last year’s AB 1648, a similar proposal that passed the Assembly, but didn’t make it in time for the Senate.

After passing a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and the governor’s desk, the SB 52 would go into effect immediately. If it only passes a simple majority in the Legislature, voters could see it as a ballot measure next election.

The narrow victory for Citizens United in 2010’s Supreme Court decision flooded the airwaves with vitriolic campaign ads, and many states have taken action. Super PACs have essentially directed the last few elections, making campaigns more sensational and less substantial.

Any way to minimize their power puts control back in the hands of voters to frame the discussion and make thoughtful decisions at the polls.

3. 72-Hour Online Publication of Legislation

Recent ballot initiatives have proposed sweeping reforms that confront state issues on multiple fronts. Their complications scare away voters and make it easy to overlook individual details of a bill.

Last year’s Proposition 31 is a prime example. One of its many goals was to mandate a three day waiting period for new legislation, but voters turned it down because of the rest of the bill’s complexity.

Senator Lois Wolk and Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen hope to avoid this confusion by introducing bills solely focused on changing the legislative process.

SCA10 and ACA4 would require legislation to be publicly available online for three days prior to a vote. Under the proposed new policy, all bills would have to follow this rule with the exception of those regarding a state of emergency.

The effects of this change in procedure would be twofold. The drafting and ratification of laws would be much more transparent, and lawmakers would be held accountable for the policies they propose and support. It would also lift pressure off Sacramento to pass laws that haven't been fully read and analyzed.

"When bills are introduced at the last minute and voted on minutes or hours later, that's just bad public policy," said Olsen, author of ACA4. Tweet quote: Tweet

Since both bills would amend Article IV of the state’s Constitution, they must passed with a two-thirds majority in the Legislature and be approved by voters. New York, Hawaii, and Florida already have similar legislative provisions in place.

President Obama and the Republican Party have promised to post legislation online, although both have broken their pledges. Giving the public access to all proposed legislation will become the standard and is the most logical extension of an increasingly democratizing Internet.

The more citizens are engaged in policy-making, the closer public dialogue is grounded in fact, understanding, and civility.

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