Honoring the Mansfield Legacy through Civil Discourse

Mike Mansfield was a sterling example of statesmanship and ethical leadership in tumultuous times

By Deena Mansour

Former Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield cautioned that maintaining a democracy is an ongoing challenge. The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol is a stark reminder of that admonition. Our country is polarized and consumed by bitter partisanship. Misinformation is rampant and a level of political violence that was unimaginable until recently now has the potential to become normalized. If we allow these challenges to fester without addressing them creatively in a spirit of hope and determination, the result will be significant and potentially irreversible damage to our nation.

Mike Mansfield was a sterling example of statesmanship and ethical leadership in tumultuous times when our country, not unlike today, was confronting serious challenges –including the war in Vietnam, civil rights, political assassinations, and Watergate. In his position of leadership during those polarizing times, Mansfield’s steady hand was a calming and stabilizing force in his beloved Senate and for the country as a whole. Mansfield understood that partisanship was always secondary to a shared obligation to the public good and the Constitution. That ethic earned him respect from across the political spectrum for his bipartisan leadership, his willingness to share power, and his commitment to listen to and respectfully consider opinions different from his own.

Tragically, the pandemic has only exacerbated the deep divides in our society. Ethical considerations in balancing personal freedoms with the responsibilities of citizenship have too often been subsumed into the contours of our political polarization. Alarmingly, even Montana’s public health professionals are under attack.  At the very time our public health workforce is working beyond its limits to protect our communities, many have been subjected to everything from verbal abuse in grocery stores to protestors outside their homes.

The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, founded by an Act of Congress in 1983, honors and carries forward the legacy of patriotic statesmanship. We have a deep responsibility to our country and our fellow citizens to reaffirm the promise and implement the ideals on which America was founded. Guided by Senator Mansfield’s example, our work fosters civil exchanges of ideas from a diverse range of viewpoints, emphasizes the importance of democratic institutions, and examines the role that ethical values play in public life.

Given the urgent nature of these issues and our mandate to foster dialogue on ethics in public affairs, the Mansfield Center brings national and statewide experts together to inspire community conversations. We are honored that the premiere expert on the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has agreed to speak directly to Montanans in the 2021 Mansfield Lecture on February 17 at noon.

To provide additional opportunities to explore issues of the pandemic, we have two upcoming “Pandemic Dialogues” to set the stage for Dr. Fauci’s talk.

Disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Native communities will be explored by Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairwoman Shelly R. Fyant and Fort Peck Tribes Councilwoman Kaci Wallette in a conversation moderated by We Are Montana Founder Cora Neumann on February 3.

A discussion on freedom, rights and responsibilities features Montana House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, small business owner Tom Snyder, Former Justice Jim Nelson, and Missoula County Chief Civil Deputy Attorney Anna Conley in a session moderated by Constitutional Law Professor Anthony Johnstone on February 10.

Each virtual session takes place at noon and is free, though registration is required at www.umt.edu/mansfield.  We hope that you’ll join us to share your voice in dialogue that affects every Montanan.

Deena Mansour is executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana.

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