A culture of civility

Posted: Jul 24, 2006 12:00 AM

Blamers. Idiots. Morons. These and other invectives are often used to describe the “other side” in the battle royal that is modern politics. It is downright fashionable in 2006 to push the envelope of extremism just far enough to get people to read your stuff, laugh out loud, and then, of course, affirm why “we” are right and “they” are wrong. The politician, columnist or activist who can put down the other side with deft sarcasm or clever derogatory labels is often viewed within his or her peer group as the most loyal and dedicated of “believers.”

Psychologists call this phenomenon “splitting”: You make people either all good or all bad. And it starts at an early age: You hate your first grade teacher; you love your friend. Maturity tells us, however, that most of us float somewhere between “all good” and “all bad”. Call it the integrated self. Still in politics we somehow manage to get stuck in a vicious cycle of praising the “all good” politician while demonizing the “all bad” opponent. For instance, conservatives despise Ted Kennedy; liberals hate Rick Santorum. When Bill Clinton was president there were people who couldn’t stand to even look at him. Today, a similar antipathy is aimed at President Bush.

It’s all symptomatic of our crumbling culture of civility. Indeed, I recently heard former Secretary of State Colin Powell say in a speech that he fears we are losing that culture. We are splitting into camps that make the other side all good or all bad, he said.

While these political “food fights” are not new in Washington, history tells us that Congress used to fight all day over ideas and then go out for dinner afterward and actually enjoy each other’s company. Ronald Reagan was famous for fighting with Tip O’Neil during the day and then inviting him over for a beer after 5:00. Ed Meese, Reagan’s former chief policy advisor, once told me that the president and house leader were adversaries before 5:00 and friends after 5:00.

So how did we get here from there? A few things come to mind:

Limited inter-party interaction

As one of my congressional staffer friends told me, “I don’t want to be seen hanging out with one of the staffers from the other side or I will be viewed as a traitor.” This attitude may be shifting, but under Tom DeLay’s leadership it was a well known mantra.

Media driven partisanship

Caring only about ratings. The media wants to create as many partisan fights as it can. Thus, we get a heavy dose of yelling and false accusations in almost every news show. I once even had a conservative commentator tell me he could often hear his producer whispering in his earpiece, “More anger, more anger.”

Search for a common enemy

People long to belong to something larger than themselves. Often times the easiest way to accomplish this is to focus on a common enemy. We see this in all sorts of political organizations and advocacy groups that assure their members that, “you are right and they are wrong—and dumb.”

I think we can begin to address our declining civility by starting with these three drivers. My sense tells me that 10 percent of the right and 10 percent of the left are so determined to make themselves the “good ones” and the other side the “bad ones” that no matter what I or anyone else writes, they will never listen. This leaves 80 percent of Americans who really want more civility and less polarization in Congress and across America.

Ultimately we all want a vigorous exchange of ideas. We know the sweetness of the democratic process is the ability to forge solutions even though we have different starting points. Governing to achieve solutions means we must be willing to compromise without caving on our principles. It also means that if we are involved in policy politics, we must decide we want to raise the bar on the culture of civility and that it will start with ourselves first!

Steven Carter, a Yale University professor who clerked for former Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, once told me that he never heard Marshall say a bad thing about another person. Yes, he disagreed about ideas, but he shunned personal attacks.

So where do we conservatives start in reestablishing a culture of civility? In one word, leadership. Let’s decide we want to be leaders in the same spirit of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. If we do, we will not only capture the mind of America, but her soul.