State Senators Anna Wishart and Patty Pansing Brooks speak to the Peace and Civility gathering at UNL
Sen. Anne Wishart discusses the ways that she practices civil discourse while Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks listens. Photo by Brandon Thomas

By Sarah Parkin and Brandon Thomas

In an age of instant gratification online and 24 hour news cycles, a group of Nebraska state senators said Tuesday that civility suffers under the digital veil. 

“This is where a lot of this discourse problem comes in,” State Sen. Tom Brandt said. “I think if we went back to all being in this room and shutting [down] our devices and talking about the subject, it makes a difference.”

On November 19, five Nebraska senators stopped by the Nebraska Union at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to participate as panelists for the discussion “Breaking Through Politics: Meeting in the Middle.” The discussion allowed state senators to discuss how they promote civility in the Nebraska legislature when faced with opposition. 

The panel featured senators with opposing party affiliations as well as considerably different ideals. Democratic State Sens. Patty Pansing-Brooks and Anna Wishart joined Republican State Sens. Brandt, Myron Dorn and Suzanne Geist for the conversation. 

“That is part of what we do in the legislative process. Some of the strongest senators we’ve had over the years have been good listeners,” Dorn said. 

The panelist conversation is the final event of over a week of the student-led Peace and Civility project. Events scheduled throughout the previous week included trainings and group discussions across campus. 

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Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brandt speaks to the crowd at Tuesday’s panel titled “Breaking Through Politics: Meeting in the Middle.” Photo by Brandon Thomas

The crowd was mostly UNL students and faculty who capitalized on an opportunity to witness the rare occurence of an intimate look into a very complicated political ecosystem.

“It’s great to get a chance to communicate directly with the senators about issues that matter,” said sophomore psychology major Matt Pieper.

Despite their opposing party affiliations, the panel conversation remained civil and the senators agreed often on each others talking points.

“Discourse is a two-way communication,” Pansing Brooks said. “Part of the problem today is that people feel that they’re not being listened to and they’re not being respected.” 

Some senators considered technology an issue for keeping discourse uncivil. 

“It is so easy to say things behind a screen or behind a phone that you would not say to your colleague or your friend or your enemy face-to-face,” Geist said. 

Geist said she encourages those who are unhappy with the policies in Nebraska to come sit in her office for face-to-face meetings. The panel agreed that face-to-face meetings almost always had positive outcomes, compared to the angry emails they often receive from citizens.

But the solution for trying to understand the reasoning behind opposition viewpoints is much harder to come by. The senators agreed the hardest part of working in politics is meeting in the middle with other senators, rather than demanding they agree with each other. And meeting in the middle requires empathy.

Pansing Brooks discussed visiting Brandt’s farm and seeing his lifestyle and even getting to drive a combine. She used this as an example of learning about the personal lives of those from the other side of the political aisle.

When asked why it is important for college students to understand and practice civil discourse, all senators agreed that it is because the future of the country lies within the hands of that generation. 

“Be creative. Figure out a way to do this face-to-face interconnectedness that sometimes, between my generation and yours, gets lost and is certainly getting lost nationally,” Geist said. 

“The first thing I always do if I’m going to work on a piece of legislation is I always look for the opposition arguments and meet with people who would potentially be opposed to it,” Wishart said. “It’s good to be challenged. You don’t want to live in an echochamber of everybody that says yes, that’s where you fail in life.”

Nebraska has a unique unicameral system that allows for civil discourse to thrive, the senators agreed. It is up to the younger generations to continue to promote this civility, they said. 

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Geist said. “You’re here because you’re engaged and interested. It warms my heart to know there are people interested in this subject.”