Civility, Civic Literacy and Public Service

There is a robust debate underway about what it will take to attract the best and brightest of our young people to public service. As someone who has taught public affairs for 15 years—and with several years of government service in my own background—I have a theory that I would sum up as “civility, civic literacy and a meaningful opportunity for service.”

By “civility,” I mean a collegial and supportive workplace in which partisan political considerations take a back seat to achievement of the common good. By “civic literacy,” I mean familiarity with accepted understandings of America’s history and constitution. And by “a meaningful opportunity for service,” I mean an approach to administrative practice that balances ends and means in pursuit of the public interest.

There was an interesting symposium on political civility in a recent academic journal. The articles wrestled with confounding questions: what is the difference between argumentation that illuminates differences and rhetoric that “crosses the line”? The consensus seemed to be that incivility is rudeness or impoliteness that violates an agreed social standard.

I’m not sure we have agreed social standards in this age of invective, but surely rhetoric that focuses on, and disrespects, persons rather than positions should count as uncivil. (An example of civility in political argument might be Dick Lugar’s often-repeated phrase “that is a matter about which reasonable people can differ.”)

One of the most trenchant observations came from a professor who attributed the gridlock in Washington and elsewhere to “partisan one-upmanship expressed in ways that do not show respect for those with differing views.” In other words, if your motivation is simply to beat the other guys–to keep the President from a second term, for example–and if that motivation outweighs any concern for the public good, civility is absent and governing is impossible.

The reason politicians no longer “respectfully disagree” with each other, the professor pointed out, is that they do not in fact respect their opponents. For a variety of reasons, they hardly know them, and it’s easy to demonize people you don’t know.

Add to that an even more troubling aspect of today’s politics, a lack of civic literacy abetted by disregard for fact and truth and enabled by partisan television, talk radio and the internet. Survey after survey shows that people on the left and right alike get their “news” from sources that validate their biases. Worse, we have lost much of the real news, the mainstream, objective journalism that fact-checks, that confronts us with inconvenient realities. In such an environment, it becomes easier to characterize those with whom we disagree as buffoons or worse, unworthy of our respect. It is easier still if we lack even an elementary grounding in the origins and philosophy of American government, a lack confirmed by one dispiriting survey after another.

There is ample research confirming the existence of a worrisome civic deficit. I have reported much of it in this blog. If nature abhors a vacuum, as the old saying has it, it should not surprise us that citizens accept the spin and outright fabrications of the pundits and “talking heads” who have political axes to grind.

When political discourse is so nasty, and regard for truth so minimal–when the enterprise of government has more in common with a barroom brawl than a lofty exercise in statesmanship–is it any wonder that so many of our “best and brightest” shun politics? Forget elective office–who wants to go to work for a government agency the very existence of which is regarded as illegitimate by a substantial percentage of one’s fellow-citizens?

Americans have spent the last thirty plus years denigrating the role of government and the value of public service to an audience ill-equipped to evaluate those arguments. Now we are paying the price for our neglect of civic education and our unwillingness to defend the worth of the public sector.

Americans have a bipolar approach to issues: it’s either all good or all bad. But government is neither. We don’t have to abandon critical evaluation of government’s performance, but we do need to remind citizens of government’s importance and value.

I firmly believe in the line from Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come. If we rebuild civic knowledge and respect for civility and public service, young people will answer the call.


  1. This reminds me a family friend that I saw again yesterday after many years. He works for a gun dealer up in South Bend and was boasting about how good business was these days. He said that they are the largest dealer in Indiana and yet, if Obama gets re-elected, the sky will fall. While he showed me his brand new car, he said, all hell will break loose if that Moslim (sic) stays in the WH. It’s pure racism and fox spews’ talking points. He is too foolish to admit that his life has been improved significantly because of the FEAR that his partisan politics has provided to him.

  2. Sheila, Your observations are right on target! They are reminiscent of a statement made long ago by Bertrand Russell:
    “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts (prior biases), he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance with his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

  3. The problem with focusing on the “achievement of the common good” is that the national Republican party has essentially declared that there is no such thing as the public good/common good. It’s evident in the mocking of “empathy” during the Sotomayor hearings, inveighing against teaching rational thinking in the Texas party platform, and explicitly dividing the country into makers and takers.

    When politicians openly declare that government “of the people, by the people” is THE problem, then the very foundations of the social contract are in jeopardy. I’m just not sure how you can build a functional government on such shaky ground.

  4. A post promoting civility and positive discourse followed by comments containing nasty political stereotyping and xenophobic insults to people with whom we disagree. Great post but ultimately disappointing…

  5. Thanks Prof K. I must disagree with one part of this. You write that:
    “Americans have spent the last thirty plus years denigrating the role of government and the value of public service…”
    Actually it seemed to me that it was the Republican Party that aimed their sights on our government. “Government IS the problem” and they all cheered. And talk Radio which is 95% Right Wing Republican has been drumming in that government hating message for decades. Their audience is the guys in pickup trucks working for their families. The sermons tell them that THEY are the victims. You know…the White Guys with the Jobs. THEY are the real victims. The government and THOSE people are your enemy. Right wing hate radio propping up the Republican hate machine has been terribly successful in damaging OUR country. I am not sure how we un-ring that bell. Now they get Rush & Sean by day and Fox Noise at night. They have been tested and the more folks get their news from Fox Noise, the more likely they are to firmly believe things that are not true. How on earth is that solved?

  6. Couldn’t agree more, Dr. Kennedy. I know those young people of whom you speak are out there. How do we get them involved?

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