When looking for the cause of dysfunction in Washington D.C., perhaps we need to start by looking in the mirror.

That was just one of a number of the thoughts shared at a “Divisiveness in Democracy” conference sponsored by the Burton K. Wheeler Center at the Radisson Colonial Hotel Saturday.

Elected officials, former officials, students and citizens were among the 70 attendees.

And while divisiveness is particularly in the spotlight in this presidential campaign, there’s definitely a history of how we got here.

Political arguments are part of our democracy, going back more than 200 years.

The delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention had heated arguments, but still managed to draft and sign a constitution.

“The rhetoric seems particularly shrill,” said Brad Snow, Wheeler Center board chair of why the conference is being held. “We wanted to see what we could do to generate more light and less heat.”

It’s not the first time American politics have gotten heated, said Snow, pointing out that “the caning of Charles Sumner,” an abolitionist, by a South Carolina representative in 1856 foreshadowed the Civil War.

Does discourse have to continue to degenerate to bickering and name calling?

Friday night’s preconference speaker Ted Celeste, a former Ohio state representative, thinks not.

He heads Next Generation, a project of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which was founded after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in May 2011.

His group just held a training, Building Trust for Civil Discourse, with all of Idaho’s legislators. A follow-up event was done with Boise City Club, civic groups, media members and all elected officials in the area.

“It was quite powerful,” said Celeste, of the positive reception in Idaho. “We would definitely like to do it with the Montana Legislature.”

So far, the Civil Discourse workshops have been held with 400 legislators in 12 states, Celeste said, and are run by trained legislators who come in from a different state.

There used to be a time of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, said panelist Nicol Rae, the dean of the Montana State University College of Letters and Science. And people used to split how they voted their ballot, electing perhaps a conservative president and liberal senator.

That’s happening less and less.

National elections are typically followed by gridlock, said Rae.

The theater of government shutdowns is “almost a Washington Kabuki,” he said, referring to the traditional, highly stylized Japanese style of drama.

There’s been a rise of single-issue groups, he said. Political Action Committees, Super PACs, as well as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision have led to further polarization.

Partisan news media, such as popular talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh add to the problem.

Rae sees hope in Montana, he said, where the Republican Legislature is working with a Democratic governor and passing legislation.

“Montana has a distinct Montana culture,” Rae said. This “culture” isn’t true in other states, he said, referring to Florida where he lived for more than 20 years.

Panelist Bob Brown, who served in the Montana Legislature for more than 20 years, blamed term limits for some of the loss of bipartisanship.

Legislators had friendships on both sides of the aisle, he said, and veteran legislators mentored newcomers.

Longtime statehouse reporter Chuck Johnson recalled when Montana politics took a bitter turn in 2007, when the Legislature adjourned without passing a budget and a Republican legislator publicly cursed out other members of the Legislature.

The rise of Western Tradition Partnership and its “scurrilous” campaigns against moderate Republicans, the ascendance of the Tea Party and the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision have further polarized politics.

Vile anonymous attacks go back in American history, he added, including particularly nasty attacks against Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

The financial and readership decline of traditional newspapers that offered more broad-based news coverage of national and international politics and issues was also named by several speakers as a contributing factor to political polarization.

Start talking and listening

One way to stop the demonizing is to start talking to each other by getting to know people who are different than us, suggested several speakers.

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On panelist, former Billings mayor Chuck Tooley, recommended joining civic organizations that have membership that is quite different from you.

In Billings, broad-based community engagement led to an urban revitalization of the downtown, he said.

State Representative Jenny Eck (D-Helena) said listening is a good place to begin and “to resist being self-righteous,” which she labeled an addictive drug.

A lot of things are working in Montana, she said. The last legislative session resulted in bipartisan cooperation leading to Medicaid expansion, better mental health services and the Disclose Act, requiring groups that make election contributions to disclose how the money is being spent and where it comes from.

Eck said that she was “mostly feeling positive” and that she’s encouraged that a record number of women and Native Americans have been getting elected to the Montana legislature.

Reach out to youth

Rachel Huff-Doria, executive director of Forward Montana, urged more face-to-face work with young people to get them registered to vote, so that voting is part of their culture.

If they don’t vote when they’re young, she said, it’s unlikely they’ll vote when they’re older.

Rep. Dan Zolnikov (Billings-R) said he’s made friendships with Democrats and has worked on a variety of bills with them. Although he is a conservative legislator, much of his legislation has been supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. He's worked on everything from net metering legislation to the death penalty to freedom of the press.

Former Congressman Pat Williams pointed out that some elected politicians demonize the very governmental bodies where they’ve been elected to serve.

He also said elected officials need to be leaders. He recalled former Montana senator and statesman Mike Mansfield saying, “I was elected to use my head. If you don’t like what I’m doing -- bring me home.”

Mansfield followed his head and his conscience, said Williams. He was a leader in introducing gun control legislation.

Numerous suggestions of how to move forward were offered by attendees.

A few key ones were to encourage people to get more involved in their community and to reach out to women, minorities and young people to join community groups and to serve on their boards.

For more information, visit www.wheelercenter.org and the Wheeler Center’s facebook page, where video of the conference will be posted. It will also be broadcast by Television Montana (TVMT).

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