Carmel, Indiana, the rapidly growing suburb on the north side of metropolitan Indianapolis, has lately received a lot of favorable publicity. CNN Money Magazine, for example, recently ranked the city as number one in the nation on its list of “Best Places to Live.” At the same time, Carmel was named number one on a list of “Ten Safest Suburbs” in America by the Movoto real estate blog. The city has also received recognition for its walkability, affluence, quality of its public schools, youth sports programs, and the many roundabouts on its public roads.
Presiding over this highly regarded city since 1996 is Mayor Jim Brainard, a Republican, as one must be to achieve political office in Hamilton County, Indiana, in which Carmel is located. It would be hard not to credit Mayor Brainard for the positive developments seen in the city over the past decade and a half. Although a prominent politician, the Mayor does not exhibit the highly partisan rhetoric typical of party politics in present-day America. Mayor Brainard, a participant in the first Conference on Ethics and Public Argumentation (CEPA) held at Butler this April, often models what political discourse could be or ought to be. A prior post on this blog focused on another participant in the first CEPA, the Reverend James Harrison of the Indianapolis 10-Point Coalition. This post takes up the example of a second.
The mayor recently sat for an interview with a writer for the Huffington Post, focusing on the topic of President Obama’s newly announced rules on climate change emission standards (direct quotations are from that interview: “Meet One Republican Who Is Happy About Obama’s New Climate Rule,”
While national Republican political leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner, attacked the new rules (Boehner reportedly said they were “nuts”), Brainard had a different take on the matter: “People realize we’ve made a mess of our climate and our environment,” he said, and, “We need to clean it up. It’s very simple.”
Brainard is one of only two or three Republicans appointed by the President to his task force composed of local and state elected officials to advise the Administration on climate change and its effects on local communities. The Huffington Post writer wanted to know what that was like. Brainard pointed out that before all the partisanship on this issue, historically the Republicans were known for pro-environmentalist positions. Teddy Roosevelt, after all, initiated the national park system over a century ago. And, the mayor reminds us, the EPA was begun under President Nixon, who also saw the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Migratory Bird Act enacted during his administration. Regarding the meetings of the task force formed by President Obama, Brainard says that you wouldn’t know who were R’s and who were D’s by observing the group’s discussions. “It’s refreshing to say the least,” and he reminds us of the saying repeated in local government, “there’s no Democrat or Republican way to fill a pothole.”
So, are the political fights and heated rhetoric unrepresentative of the Mayor’s experience? “Totally different from my experience as mayor!” Brainard has an interesting explanation concerning why the national scene is so different from the local one. “[In Washington] we have a industry of political consultants,” who are highly paid and whose jobs are dependent “upon partisanship and keeping everybody mad at everybody.” He is implying that there are powerful incentives to foment dysfunctional politics. Policy-making in a non-partisan way, featuring compromise, he adds, “doesn’t make political headlines either during elections. We have a real problem in this country with that.”
There appears to be a lesson from this Republican’s view on the political climate in America (going beyond the meteorological climate). In an atmosphere polluted by a fixation on winning and losing (and little else), it becomes difficult to connect ethics with one’s public arguments. The public debates on climate change and related topics may well continue to be clouded by the continued emphasis on extreme partisanship. Meanwhile, leaders such as the Mayor of Carmel offer a model of a better way for carrying forward policy discussion and debate.
William W. Neher
Bill Neher is professor emeritus of communication studies at Butler University, where he taught for 42 years. Over those years he has served as Dean of the University College, Director of the Honors Program, Head of the Department of Communication Studies, the Chair of the faculty governance, and most recently as the first Dean (Interim) for the new College of Communication begun in June 2010. He is the author of several books dealing with organizational and professional communication, ethics, and African studies, plus several public speaking and communication text books.
The Conference on Ethics and Public Argumentation, housed in the Butler University College of Communication, serves as CCOM’s academic hub for promoting the ethical use of reasoning and rationality in public deliberation.