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After the Arizona shooting, the civility movement sees tipping point

Calls for unity in response to the Arizona shooting are seen as an opportunity for the civility movement to tackle partisan rancor.

In response to the Arizona shooting, calls to muzzle partisan rancor may be a tipping point for the civility movement which works not to end American disagreement but to change the manner in which Americans disagree.

Illustration by John Kehe/staff

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Exchanges on the House floor were growing heated and vicious. Cooperation between parties had ground to a halt – and had already led to a shutdown of government. Worried about the future of Congress itself, 86 members sent a letter to the speaker requesting an urgent, bipartisan retreat to focus on one thing: building civility.

Laura Chasin, founder of the Public Conver­sa­tions Project, helped facilitate discussions at that 1997 congressional retreat in Hershey, Pa., and describes a “very moving” scene. Members were asked how the acrimony in public life affected them. “And the stories that came out,” she says, “oh, my.” One congressman from the Southwest, “with tears streaming down his face,” Ms. Chasin recalls, said he’d gotten into politics to help people, but found himself in town-hall meetings “just gritting his teeth. The abuse had become so horrible.”

Now, 15 years later, it seems the tone in Wash­ington – and around the country – is, if possible, even more divisive and ugly. Last summer, with a stagnant economy and emotions over the health-care reform bill raging, some members wound up canceling town-hall meetings altogether because they were deteriorating into shouting matches.

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