Shift in tone at the Kansas Statehouse includes impatience and contempt toward colleagues and constituents
At Kansas Action for Children, our team spends about 80 hours a week monitoring committee meetings and floor debate at the Statehouse. We track bills and legislative action on the issues we care about. This session, we’re doing that work remotely to protect our health and the health of others.
Three weeks into the session, we can identify most lawmakers just by the sound of their voice. But it’s not just their words coming through loud and clear on the recently upgraded audio and video stream — it’s also their tone.
And the tone that certain lawmakers are taking with their colleagues and everyday Kansans testifying is disheartening. It’s potentially destructive to effectively policymaking.
Researchers have long known that communication isn’t just about what we say, but how we say it. Words that seem benign become weapons when spoken with condescension, dismissiveness, impatience, contempt. The way lawmakers discuss issues affects the health of the legislative process. And the health of the legislative process affects the health of children and families throughout our state.
Incivility could have a chilling effect on regular folks coming to the Statehouse to talk with lawmakers and speak their mind about an issue. Lobbyists and Statehouse regulars may be accustomed to hostile words and a surly tone from lawmakers, but that doesn’t make it right. Nobody should be treated that way — not on Zoom, and not in person.
I understand the challenge of managing the range of emotions that come with being a lawmaker — especially frustration. I served nearly five years as a Democratic state representative from Lawrence at a time when Republicans had control of the House, Senate and governor’s office. And yet I tried to engage in differences constructively. I fought to find even the tiniest bit of common ground.
I endeavored to hold two truths at once. A colleague could be a nice person and make a vote I thought was terrible. It wasn’t always easy, but it paid off. Maybe not in getting any closer to my individual policy goals, but at least in setting the tone for how I believe important institutions like the Kansas Legislature should work, regardless of who holds power.
Let’s face it: We can’t tackle the biggest problems facing this state as warring factions or squabbling individuals. As difficult as it seems these days, we must do so as a self-supporting group, willing to bridge differences and make compromises when necessary.
I hope that what our team and other advocates are hearing is simply classic partisanship that seems to linger after each hard-fought election. I fear that it reflects a broader problem in Kansas and our country: lack of humility, respect and empathy for other people with different ideas and experiences.
KAC has worked with legislators from both parties and a wide range of ideologies for decades. Disagreements or passionate beliefs don’t have to make one side or the other unworthy of kindness.
John Wilson is the president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children.