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Seven steps to civility

A bipartisan majority of the U.S. House gathered recently in Hershey, Pa., to address the erosion of civility in the nation's politics.

The goal of the weekend retreat was to recover a sense of mutual trust, even fraternity, in the conduct of political debate. The need for greater civility in the political arena is undeniable. A recent poll found that 89 percent of the American people think incivility is a serious problem and 73 percent blame mean-spirited politics.

While the weekend retreat represents a good first step toward the recovery of civility, more than stylistic improvements will be required to give people the public debate they want. Recovering civility in debate must be accompanied in the coming months by substantive reform in the conduct of politics itself. Here are seven steps toward a more civil and satisfying public debate:

1. As a public figure, be a trust-builder. Incivility is the result of a loss of trust among individuals and in institutions. Contemporary politics, with its transparently calculated and canned approach to issues, has contributed to the erosion of trust in our political culture. A skeptical public wants to get beyond the pretense and hype of politics as it is currently practiced. As my 13-year-old son would say, it's time for politicians to "get real."

2. Adopt a golden rule of civil debate. Anyone concerned about character in society must be concerned about integrity in public debate. The one irreducible requirement for civil debate is possessing a genuine respect for the rights and dignity of one's opponents as human beings. The late John Courtney Murray argued that apart from this acknowledgment of the humanity of others, debate degenerates into shrill vituperation. Whoever may "win" the argument, society loses.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century political philosopher, suggested the establishment of a golden rule for public life: "Do not that to another which thou wouldst not have done to thyself." He said no practitioner of democracy should "by deed, word, countenance or gesture declare hatred or contempt for others."

3. Don't turn civility into an excuse for evasion. The 1996 presidential campaign was not lacking in civility. It had the opposite but equally serious fault: It was syrupy and insipid. It's hard to tell whether the public is more bothered by incivility or the lack of a real honest-to-goodness substantive debate.

A public that is cynical toward an unruly Congress will become even more jaded if civility becomes simply the latest ploy of self-seeking politicians to improve their tarnished public image. If mean-spirited public debate is unhealthy for democracy, so is a civility that is synonymous with fuzziness and fudging. American democracy is enriched by competing ideologies and political perspectives, especially when that competition is honest, open and premised upon the human dignity of opponents.

4. Call a truce in the criminalization of political differences. Today, it is not just political rhetoric but the practice of politics itself that often resembles war. Public rancor in debate only reflects the deeper private vengeance that is practiced every day by Washington insiders. The complaints of many retiring politicians about declining civility in public life reflected less a concern with partisan disagreement than the increasingly vicious character of the entire "beltway" culture.

Speaking in February at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Clinton called on the nation to "pray for us," admitting that it is politicians themselves who are in the greatest trouble for daily carrying out the most pointless and childish forms of political vengeance.

Washington is breaking new records in assembling special prosecutors to investigate its own leading players. Most of these appointments are necessary, but their merits are lost on a public which increasingly views scandal as part of the daily fare of a system that is concerned primarily with petty recrimination.

5. Recognize the importance of reasoned persuasion. To be authentic and civil, public argument must occur within the context of a shared commitment to basic moral ends. Only when "we hold these truths" in common can we as citizens argue meaningfully about how they should be applied. The best public debate involves arguments over the most effective means for advancing common ends.

To the extent that America is actually engaged in "culture wars," public argument can't help but reflect the current absence of agreement regarding what is just, right and good. There is only one way out of this: frank discussion that relies on persuasion, not on the bully tactics of imposition. Those involved in public debate carry a burden not only to avoid destructive polarization, but to move people toward greater agreement over core American principles.

6. Stop assuming the public is ignorant and gullible. Most Americans recognize that the easy issues are behind us and that the ones now before us _ like reforming the middle-class entitlement state _ are difficult. Most Americans are also aware of the complexities and trade-offs that accompany these issues. Yet political debate almost always reduces such issues to two diametrical choices.

One reason why partisan debate frequently generates more heat than light is because politicians are more concerned to alert the politically active sector to happenings in Washington than they are the broader public. Political rhetoric is now designed to reach the 5 percent who fund and actively follow politics _ that is, the interest groups and ideologues _ because politics more than ever resembles business, and in the business of politics these groups are the real source of capital.

7. Demand more of the people. Civil debate must be honest debate. Part of the reason politicians have turned on each other is because they are afraid to level with the American people. Democrats and Republicans alike should recognize and acknowledge the inability of public policy, by itself, to solve our most pressing social problems. These problems can only be effectively addressed through a society-wide renaissance centering on the renewal of our families, places of worship and civic associations _ in other words, by all of us, not just politicians and experts.

The retreat in Hershey was a laudable idea, and long overdue. If the sweetness of the nation's "chocolate capital" has its desired effect, perhaps this will be recognized as the beginning of a genuine, bipartisan effort to improve the quality of our public life.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Service

Don Eberly directs the Civil Society Project and is the author or editor of three books on civil society.