There’s an interesting symposium on political civility in a recent issue of PS: Political Science and Politics. The articles wrestle with some foundational questions: what is the difference between the sort of argumentation that illuminates differences and is an inevitable part of democratic discourse and rhetoric that “crosses the line”? What do we mean by incivility?
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 attacks that focus on, and disrespect, persons rather than positions should count as uncivil. An example of civility in political argument might be Dick Lugar’s often-repeated phrase to the effect that “that is a matter about which reasonable people can differ.” (Hard to imagine Mr. Mourdock, who has taken pride in incivility and intransigence, making such a statement.)
The contributors offer a variety of perspectives on the definitions and causes of today’s nasty politics, but one of the most trenchant observations came from a Professor Maisel of Colby College, who attributes the gridlock in Washington and elsewhere to “partisan one-upmanship expressed in ways that do not show respect for those with differing views.” As he notes (referring to Erik Cantor)
If your will is to prevent legislation from passing, to prevent the president’s agenda from moving forward, to work the system to your political advantage, then lack of civility works.
In other words, if your over-riding motivation is simply to beat the other guy–to keep the President from a second term, as Mitch McConnell famously admitted–and if that motivation outweighs any concern for the public good, governing is impossible.
The reason politicians no longer “respectfully disagree” with each other, Professor Maisel points out, is that they do not in fact respect the views of their opponents. They hardly know them. The days when Congressional families lived in Washington and socialized–when their children went to school together, and their spouses carpooled or otherwise interacted–are long gone. It’s easy to demonize people you don’t know.
Add to that an even more troubling aspect of today’s politics, a disregard for fact and truth, 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 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.
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?
Government is broken, and we need to fix it. Unfortunately, the symposium contributions didn’t tell us how to do that.