Let’s improve our civility in discourse

Anne Mervenne and Steve Tobocman

12:03 a.m. ET June 22, 2017

We are inspired and encouraged that restoring civility in American politics was one of the three pillars at this year’s Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference. Daily, if not hourly, our airwaves and computer news feeds are filled with cringe-worthy words, images and actions. Insulting commentary is reported and repeated. Hurtful words and deeds are liked, promoted and shared.

Yet, we see hope. Since its founding in 1992, the Michigan Political Leadership Program, one of the nation’s only bipartisan training programs which is at home in Michigan State University’s College of Social Science, has recruited, trained and, hopefully, inspired public policy leaders. Each year, MPLP offers 24 MPLP Fellows, from all the political spectrum, the vision, commitment and skills to govern from the grassroots and local office to the state Capitol.

Realistically, it will take more than a single discussion to end hyper-partisanship and restore a sense of civility. We must start by building civil habits early in political careers and encouraging leaders to live and treat others as they would seek to be treated, a kind of political “golden” rule.

As co-directors of MPLP, we offer a hopeful outlook.

We strive for civil conversations in a multipartisan learning environment that takes our MPLP Fellows from hands-on visits to corporate headquarters, to tours of communities they’ve never visited, to the sharing of personal revelations.

We ask fellows from opposing parties to overnight together as part of routine MPLP experiences. We ask them to host events and complete assignments together, regardless of political party.

We know their success stories: MPLP graduates make up 10 percent of the seats in the last three Michigan Legislatures. MPLP ranks include such notables as Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Ken Cockrel Jr., former Detroit mayor and city council member.

Civility and bipartisanship start at home — at the local level and in our state Legislature.

Equally notable are hundreds of MPLP Fellows who occupy village, city, county, school and even precinct offices. In our first-ever research of the fates of our MPLP graduates, we have found that MPLP Fellows are twice as likely to run for public office and three times as likely to win as those equally rated applicants who haven’t taken part in the program.

We are truly proud to say that nearly half go on to hold elective or appointed office.

The Detroit News recently asked: “Can Mackinac confab make political civility cool again?” The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Bureau Chief Gerald F. Seib has also asked: “Civil Discourse in Decline: Where Does It End?”

We believe political civility can be renewed through paths to opportunity, to learning and to transformational knowledge as we provide the framework and the models of regard, respect, curiosity and considerate expression.

We see these questions about civility producing new interest in political office and leadership, and call for all those who seek this renewed conversation to apply for MPLP’s Class of 2018.

Demonstrating our commitment to civil discourse, we ask that applicants be dedicated to sound public policy, to building new leadership skills and to a willingness to learn and explore different points of view.

With generous support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, we offer a series of three MPLP-hosted public events — Engage Detroit was held on June 16, Engage Battle Creek is on July 21 and Engage Grand Rapids on Sept. 15 to help citizens be more involved in politics and policy.

Each featured training on leadership development and how to become politically engaged. Let us all repeat, like, share and speak out in favor of civil discourse.

Anne Mervenne and Steve Tobocman are co-directors of the Michigan Political Leadership Program.

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