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The need for civil discourse in politics in America

Few subjects seem duller than concern for public manners. But little is more important for the world's leading democracy than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness in the public square. • Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify — or cloud — thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts. • The concept of civility implies politeness, but civil discourse is about more than good etiquette. At its core, civility requires respectful engagement: a willingness to consider other views and place them in the context of history and life experiences. • Recent comments on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives have gathered much attention, but vastly more rancorous, socially divisive assertions are being made across the land. Public officials are being labeled "fascist" or "communist." And more bizarrely, significant public figures have toyed with the notion of "secession." • One might ask what problem is there with a bit of hyperbole. The logic, to paraphrase literary critic Marshall McLuhan's observation about the media, is the message. • If 400,000 American soldiers sacrificed their lives to defeat fascism, if tens of thousands more gave their lives to hold communism at bay, and if we fought a civil war to preserve the Union, isn't it a citizen's obligation to apply perspective to words that contain warring implications? There is, after all, a difference between supporting a particular spending or health-care view and asserting that someone who prefers another approach or is a member of a different political party is an advocate of an "ism" of hate that encompasses gulags and concentration camps. One framework of thought defines rival ideas; the other, enemies. • Citizenship is hard. It takes a commitment to listen, watch, read and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.

Words matter. Stirring anger and playing on the irrational fears of citizens inflames hate. When coupled with character assassination, polarizing rhetoric can exacerbate intolerance, perhaps impelling violence.

Conversely, just as demagoguery can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing language such as Lincoln's call for a new direction "with malice toward none" can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.

The poet Walt Whitman once described America as an "athletic democracy." What he meant was that 19th century politics were rugged and vigorous, with spirited debates about immigration, imperialism and slavery. Things could also get violent. Vice President Aaron Burr killed our greatest Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel prompted by Hamilton's claim that Burr was a "despicable" character. The dueling pistols, which were filed to a hair trigger, caused Hamilton to fire prematurely skyward. Burr mercilessly gunned down his adversary.

So, political treachery is nothing new. What is new are transformative changes in communications technology, American politics and the issues facing mankind.

In teaching at Harvard and Princeton upon leaving Congress, I developed a series of what I call two-minute courses in American governance. Let me cite several.

Political Science 101

The country over the past generation has been approximately one-third Democratic, one-third Republican and one-third independent. Basic math tells us that one-half of one-third is one-sixth, so 16⅔ percent of the voters nominally control candidate selection in a typical election. Because only one in four voters (often a fraction of this figure) participates in primaries where candidates are chosen, it is ¼ x ¹⁄6, that is only ¹⁄24, of the electorate that determine the candidates of the principal parties. This small group is socially quite conservative on the Republican side and vigorously liberal on the Democratic. Consequently, legislative bodies intended to represent a vast cross-section of the American public come principally to reflect its philosophical extremes.

Political Science 102

In primaries for president, Republican candidates lean to the right, and then, if nominated, scoot to the center in the general election; Democrats do the same, but begin from the left. When it comes to Congress, however, the scoot to the center is seldom evident. Approximately 380 of 435 House seats are gerrymandered to be "safe" for one of the parties. About half of these safe seats are held by Republicans and half by Democrats. With few exceptions, safe-seat members must lean to the philosophical edges to prevail in primaries. Once nominated, there is no incentive for politicians to move to the center, either as candidates or legislators, because the only serious electoral challenge is likely to come from within their party's uncompromising base. Polarization is the inevitable result.

Psychology 101

An increasing number of issues in Congress are being projected as questions of morality rather than judgment. Advocates of one perspective assume that those with a different view are championing immorality. On the left, the problem is frequently evidenced by those who assume that increasing social spending for almost any compassionate cause is the only moral choice; on the right, by those who assume that the moral values of one or another group should be written into law to bind society as a whole.

Philosophy 101

Legislation is increasingly driven by partisan concerns rather than consideration for philosophical notions like the public interest or the greatest good for the greatest number. Idealism has given way to a legislative dynamic concerned with responding to the party's base and balancing the influence of interest groups.

Philosophy 102

There is something about the human condition that wants to be allowed to make governing decisions at socially cohesive levels where citizens may have impact. There is a lot written today about globalism but this century is also about localism. To adapt to a fast-changing world, one must understand both of these phenomena. As former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill repeatedly noted, all politics are local. The corollary is that all local decisions are affected by international events.

Journalism 101

In the 19th century, towns and cities often had two or more newspapers, many biased toward one or the other major political party. With the consolidation of newspapers and the popularization first of radio and then television in the second and third quarters of the 20th century, a newly configured media recognized that large audiences required greater attention to accuracy and balance.

The 1930s produced a few radio demagogues like Father Coughlin, but the media, especially the three major television networks that initially emerged, competed to present the most balanced reporting. Understanding the public's craving for balance, many newspapers started to augment their editorial pages by juxtaposing conservative and liberal columnists from Bill Buckley and George Will to Walter Lippmann and Paul Krugman.

With the rise of cable television and the Internet, competition for audiences and advertising revenues increased. Some media companies found it commercially advantageous or ideologically compelling to ape politics and project a point of view, coming full circle to the 19th century model of partisan reporting. Thus today's dilemma: At a time when in-depth analysis of the issues of the day has never been more important, quality journalism has been jeopardized by financial considerations and undercut by purveyors of ideology who facilely design news, like clothes, to appeal to a market segment.

Sports 101

The sports journalist Grantland Rice famously observed that winning and losing are less important than how the game is played. Likewise in politics. The temper and integrity of the political dialogue are more important for the cohesiveness of society than the outcome of any election. In politics, there are few rules and no referees. The public must be on guard and prepared to throw flags when politicians overstep the bounds of fairness and decency. As athletes compete to win, they also learn to respect their opponents. Is it asking too much for candidates and their supporters to do the same?

Literature 101

In a set of four books called the Alexandria Quartet the British author Lawrence Durrell describes urban life in Egypt between the first and second World Wars. In the first book, Durrell spins a story from the eyes of one character. In each subsequent book, he describes the same events from the perspective of another character. The surrounding events are the same but each story is profoundly different, informed by the narrator's life and circumstances.

The moral is that to get a sense of reality it is necessary to see things from more than one set of eyes. This moral can apply to interactions in a courtroom or town hall or to the international stage, where what America does may seem reasonable from our perspective, but look very different to a European, African, Middle Easterner or Asian.

Physics 101

Several decades ago Sir Isaac Newton set forth three laws of motion, one of which affirmed that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Social chemistry can be quite different. In the kindergarten of life, reaction can be greater than action. If, for instance, one were to malign an individual or describe the country in which he lives as "evil," the reaction might produce effects far greater than the precipitating words envisioned or intended.

Reality 101

In the most profound political science observation of the 20th century, Albert Einstein suggested that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking. Human nature may be one of the few constants in history, but 9/11 has taught that thinking must change not simply because of the destructive power of the big bomb, but because of the implosive nature of small acts. Violence and social division are rooted in hate. Since such thought begins in the hearts and minds of individuals, it is in each of our hearts and minds that hate must be checked and our way of thinking changed.

Reality 102

In one of Western civilization's most prophetic poems, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats suggests that "the center cannot hold" when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." Citizens of all philosophical persuasions are displaying increased disrespect for their fellow citizens and thus for modern day democratic governance. Much of the problem may flow from the fast-changing nature of our society, but part of the blame falls at the feet of politicians and their supporters who use inflammatory rhetoric to divide the country. Candidates may prevail in elections by tearing down rather than uplifting, but if elected, they cannot then unite an angered citizenry. Negativity dispirits the soul of society just as it raises the temperature level of legislatures.

Past Congresses have often been feisty, but what is so confounding about today's politics is the break with a central aspect of the American political tradition. Historically, legislative decisionmaking has been based on a give-and-take between the parties. Over the last several decades, however, a trend has become accentuated where legislative compromises are coming to be made almost exclusively within whichever party controls Congress, rather than between the parties. As the majority party finds itself, either by choice or default, the exclusive vehicle of legislative governance, the minority taps into the European parliamentary tradition and becomes a noncooperative opposition.

Far better it would be for all legislators to be considered responsible for governing and for both sides to recognize that the other has something to say and contribute. In a society as complex as ours, it is irrational to think that Republicans cannot find some Democratic initiatives helpful and that Democrats cannot, from time to time, vote with Republicans.

The challenge for citizens mirrors national politics: whether we the people want a united, socially cohesive country, or be led into a cultural war with each other.

The question must be addressed: If we can't respect our neighbors, how can we expect others to respect us, our values and way of life?

Civilization requires civility.

Editor's note: Jim Leach, the new chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a well-respected former congressman from Iowa and one of the more intellectual thinkers in politics. A moderate Republican, he is embarking on a 50-state "civility tour." His stop last week was Florida. This essay reflects the substance of his message.

The need for civil discourse in politics in America 01/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 6:11pm]
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