Civil political discourse may be overrated

In the New York Times on December 18th, Frank Rich wrote that the “notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation.”  His words pose a major challenge for the National Constitution Center’s upcoming symposium on “Democracy and Civility.”

To be sure, almost everyone concedes that, as Rich put it, more civility in political discourse “would be swell.”  But would it really do much to make American government work better?  After all, there’s been lots of incivility in American politics historically, and it’s far from clear that civility has been more prevalent in the periods when the system operated best.

Discussions of civility therefore have to include serious consideration of two questions: first, to what degree should greater civility be our goal in efforts to re-shape American political dialogues?  Second, insofar as we wish to promote civility, how do we do it?

On the first question, I am drawn to a version of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s argument that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.”  What we may need most in public discourse is not so

No one can get away with denying the realities of the problems we face”

much more civility as more honesty and accuracy—even if the honesty and accuracy are thrust upon politicians, as the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Factcheck.org has often done effectively.

Long ago, Plato suggested in The Republic that politics is not a realm of truth, so perfection in these regards is not to be expected.  But appropriate policy compromises may be better promoted when no one can get away with denying the realities of the problems we face, rather than when everyone is committed to speaking nicely to each other.

On the second question—how do we promote more civility?—I’m not sure that preaching civility is as effective as just practicing it.  Practicing it is in any case trickier than it seems: criticizing people for incivility often comes across as ad hominem attacks, even character assassination, which can seem pretty uncivil.  The temptation to preach rather than simply practice civility comes in part from fears that if one’s opponents are launching nasty but spectacular verbal rockets, keeping quiet and letting those rockets go off will just get you killed.

Other posts in this series:

Yet Obama’s run of successes in the now-ending lame duck congressional session may suggest that if you minimize attacks on your opponents’ rhetoric and stick primarily to your policy guns, reasonably advanced, you can win in the end.  Maybe.  Those are questions worth discussing—in civil tones, of course.

Dr. Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He serves on the academic steering committee for a public symposium on “civility and democracy,” which will take place at the National Constitution Center on March 26, 2011.

Red State / Blue State photo credit: Flickr user mandiberg

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