A Republican and a Democrat make the case for civility in politics

a man and a woman laugh
Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, a Republican, stands with U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat. The two called for more civility in politics during an event at Concordia College on April 3.
Courtesy of Melissa Van Der Stad via InForum

Given the polarization of the American electorate, one might wonder if bipartisan civil discourse is still possible.

Former North Dakota U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, and former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, a Republican, have been in the political trenches for years. And they say not only is that kind of old-style, decent conversation possible, it’s necessary.

The two recently hosted a free talk at Concordia College in Moorhead to encourage people to break out of a cycle of cultural divisions, public outrage and mistrust. They talked with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer as part of our Talking Sense project, which helps Minnesotans have better political conversations.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and style. Click on the audio player for the full interview.

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What made you decide to have this conversation?

Schafer: There’s so much political rancor today. When this opportunity came up, it made a lot of sense since Sen. Heitkamp, then Attorney General Heitcamp, and I worked together in the Capitol for the people of North Dakota and focused on getting something done for the people.

Heitkamp: Well, let me tell you what I’m seeing, because I spend a lot of time with students. I’m currently the director of the Institute of Politics in Chicago. And what I hear from students is they don’t want to be involved in politics.

They think it’s a mean business, they think you have to hate the person on the other side. And my concern is they’ve not experienced the kind of relationship that Gov. Schafer and I had when we were both in state government. And I’m not saying it was always “Kumbaya,” but we figured out how to get along and actually have fun on many occasions.

I’m hoping we can model that and tell people: You don’t have to buy into the rancor, you can conduct yourself differently. And that means that you can run for office, you can engage in public service.

Do you find lawmakers are whiplashed by voters because folks want their lawmakers to work together, but a majority also say they’re tired of their leaders compromising their values and ideals? They want leaders who will stand up to the other side. What’s behind that apparent contradiction?

Heitkamp: I think you’re always going to have the 20 to 30 percent that are the loudest, and they get the most airtime. Then the people in the middle say, “just get your job done.” I think that we’re just listening to people who see the opposition as the enemy, and not as an opponent that needs to be listened to.

How do you suggest folks coming up — younger lawmakers and leaders — start to treat each other with respect and decency?

Schafer: I think that the difficult thing is to separate that public policy discussion from the political discussions. If you focus on the public policy, it’s good. If you want to develop something that’s best for the people, you have to understand the humaneness of all this.

It’s just not someone that you’re fighting with over politics — there’s a real person there. We need to get out of our cubicles, get off of social media. Community is built with a handshake and a hug, and a slap on the back.

We have to bring people together face to face, which then allows you to understand you’re both human beings, you’re both caring, you both arrive at your conclusions in a good way. And they might be different. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Heitkamp: The advice that I give people when they say, “so and so is mad at me,” or, “this person is my political opponent,” and they go, “what should I do?” I say, go to some event that they’re at and stand next to them. Because it’s really hard to be that mad at somebody who is right there.

The other advice I would give to young people is: It doesn’t have to be that way. Don’t get caught up in other people’s ideas of how you should conduct your business. Live your values, and then even if it doesn’t work out, if you don’t get reelected, you hold your head up high and you figure out another way to be of service. 

You two are modeling good statesmanship. Who else do you see on the national scene modeling good behavior?

Schafer: There are many, many people out there who are models of good public servants. The problem is we don’t see them. The media focuses on the bad folks and the rancor and the angst.

Heitkamp: There are people like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who was behind every major piece of legislation that passed, whether it was CHIPS, whether it was the Inflation Reduction Act. She frustrated a lot of more progressive Democrats, but yet she was in the arena, working to get things done. I don’t know that the infrastructure bill would have happened without her.

On the other side, there’s a guy named Sen. Todd Young. To Ed’s point, you’ve not heard of him. And probably the best example I can give people is Sen. Patty Murray, from Washington. And Sen. Susan Collins literally led the appropriations committee and got almost unanimous support for the 12 funding bills, but that didn’t get focused on.

All of the rancor gets focused on. There are people who are doing the work. There are unsung heroes, and I have to say, I would throw Sen. Amy Klobuchar into that mix.

We’ve been focusing on our elected leaders, but what do you hope everyday folks take with them into their lives after this conversation?

Heitkamp: You love the people in your life, the people who are in your family. Don’t let a political belief, for voting for one side or the other, don’t let them separate you. And talk less, listen more. That’s always a good piece of advice. My dad used to say, “God gave you one mouth and two ears” and that “you should use them proportionally.”

Schafer: We take this stuff much too seriously. You got to have this belief that we have a great system, that it’s going to work out, that we’re resilient, that we can have hope out there, that things move forward.

You know, that this is a discussion to have, there’s differences of opinion. But you know, it’s not the most important thing in the history of the world. Focus on your family and your care and your love for each other and have civil good conversations.

For a recording of the event, go to www.lorentzsencenter.com.