By: Stephen G. Lakis, President, SLLF

Just last year SLLF signed up with Bridge Alliance, a new organization whose stated goal is to restore civility to our national discourse. We believe the Bridge Alliance is onto something, not just because they speak truth when they point out how damaging the current lack of civility is to the health of our democracy, but more because they are trying to do something about it. We’ve put our oar in the water, joined the BA family, and together with other like-minded organizations, we’re working to restore a measure of civility to the legislative discourse. The job is not easy.

I recall a program we held many, many years ago with Larry Sabato and the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia focusing on politics and the impact of negative campaigns. I remember how we all expressed dismay that our politics had “sunk” to this new low level of personal attacks. Wow! I especially remember the comments of one well-regarded political pundit who observed that negative campaigns are here to stay because they win, end of story. He was right. They do. And it seems it’s been downhill, (or uphill), from there, depending on your perspective.

Now after the passage of many years since that sobering program, we can resoundingly confirm that going negative still wins. We can also now confirm, regrettably, that our laser-like focus on winning at any cost–the ends justify the means–is inexorably and most assuredly weakening our institutions of democracy. Polls suggest that more than a third of Americans do not trust the media, question the value of an independent judiciary and openly question the legitimacy of election results they do not like. If these attitudes persist and grow, representative democracy cannot survive.

Add to this the increasingly toxic environment surrounding political campaigns, a dash of corruption or malfeasance in office, and you have all the necessary ingredients to destroy public trust in their government.

Encouraged by the scandals, distortions and outright lies promoted on websites, “news” sites and social media, the people get more cynical every day, it seems. Cynicism breeds mistrust, and mistrust breeds discontent. We all know the rest.

Here at SLLF, we work with legislative leaders: senate presidents, speakers of the house, majority leaders, minority leaders and pro tempores. There’s a lot I could say about this group of high achievers. They obviously all bring certain talents to the job and all have varying aptitudes and styles of leadership. But all of them share one big responsibility. They are the stewards of the institution of the state legislature. How they comport themselves during their service has a significant impact on how the people view their government.

No leader performs a greater service to the people, to the institution of the legislature and to the power of representative democracy, than the leader who sets an example of fairness and honesty for the entire legislature to emulate. By virtue of their position and the trust invested in them by their peers, these ordinary men and women can play an outsized role in restoring public trust in their government. On the other hand, no leader does more damage to the people, the institution and our government than the leader who constantly and consistently falls short of that standard.

All it takes is a person of unflinching integrity and the courage to do what’s right despite whatever temptations and adversities come their way. Of course, this is often easier said than done. The temptations that come with power can be intoxicating and we humans have an uncanny ability to justify almost any deed or action.

But the best leaders seem to have a fine sense of right and wrong.

The best leaders, by a country mile, are not necessarily the smartest in the room, the most gifted orators, the best dealmakers or the most prolific fundraisers. No, the best legislative leaders strive to be and do their best and inspire their peers to do the same.  They are mostly forgotten by history but keenly remembered by those who knew them as individuals of absolute integrity. They left the legislature a better place than it was when they got there.

We can help restore a healthy modicum of civility to the public arena and in the bargain, rebuild public trust.  And legislative leaders, by their example, can lead the way.

Next up. What specific steps can state legislatures and those who lead them take to help restore public trust in government?