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Toward a More Civil Discourse

David Wegge (Political Science) speaks out for a more edifying and constructive approach in public life to debating our ideological differences.

Our political system has undergone substantial changes in the past few years. I am deeply concerned about how these changes are impacting the performance of our political system. I am concerned by the undue power of special interests in our system. I am concerned by some of the misaligned priorities that seem to be prevalent. But most of all I am concerned about the nature and quality of our political discourse. Civility in our political discourse is at such a low point that it threatens the very functioning of our deliberative democratic process, and hence democracy itself.

Defining civil political discourse with precision may not be an easy task, but we all know it when we see or hear it. First, there is an emotive element in civil discourse as manifested through manners and norms of behavior; moderating – or failing to moderate – discourse through self-control. Second, there is what political scientist Virginia Shapiro refers to as “constructive confrontation” – civility manifested through argument, deliberation and discourse. This is the more rational and deliberative side of civility. It is how we would go about making decisions in a democratic system.

A culture of argument
I suspect if I took a poll and asked you to give me some examples of incivility in the political world, the responses would focus much more on the emotive: Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” interruption of President Barack Obama; the likening of national and state leaders to Hitler; and, perhaps at its most extreme, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. 

Deliberative civility in our political discourse – perhaps overshadowed by issues of self-control – has not received adequate consideration, and yet this is the linchpin in democratic decision-making. 

Deliberative civility requires that we evaluate how arguments are made and how evidence is used to make a case for why we should embark on a particular solution to a public problem. Susan Herbst, in her book “Rude Democracy,” argues that we need to create a more productive “culture of argument.”  

In debating some of the critical issues of the day, we see both sides playing fast and loose with facts. We see them constructing word images that pander to our emotions, and we see them attempting to frame the issues in clever ways to shape or misshape the opinions of the public. What we don’t see much of is constructive confrontation. 

What are the necessary ingredients for developing a “culture of argument”? First of all, you need to have issues that are contested. Then you need a healthy exchange of views and perspectives on those issues. This is when you begin to evaluate the logic and the evidence being presented. You need to acknowledge the other viewpoints and give them full consideration in relation to your own views. You need to engage in what political scientist Benjamin Barber calls “thoughtful listening.” Only then can you begin to synthesize the various points of view into a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Then comes the final decision. Not all will agree, but generally there will be a compromise position that most can accept.

I would argue that the current context in which our political leaders operate has led to diminished “self-control” civility and produced less deliberative civility. Three contextual changes in recent years are undermining the quality of political discourse. 

First, the general political environment is currently one in which resources are perceived as scarce. In times of scarce resources, conflict naturally heats up over who is going to get what. Will my program get cut? How much of the budget pie will I get? Will my job be diminished or lost? In addition, we see significant polarization among our citizens and leaders. The political world today is nearly evenly divided between the right and the left. The level of political trust is at a very low level. If we do not trust what others are saying, one of our immediate responses is to stop listening to what they have to say. 

Secondly, we have witnessed a shift over the last few decades from election cycles to continuous elections. Our leaders are continuously running for re-election, largely due to the amount of resources that must be amassed to run for office. The average candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives today spends about $1.5 million – double the 1988 figure. The average cost for U.S. Senate candidates is $7.5 million. That means if you are a House member you need to raise almost $15,000 per week. A candidate for Senate needs to raise $24,000 a week.  

If election campaigns are continuous, it means the “electoral” mindset is continuous as well. A campaign mindset is very different from a “governing” mindset. Campaigns are zero-sum conflict. There is always a winner and loser. The “governing” mindset is about collaboration and compromise. It’s about locating that middle ground where we all can find some outcome that we can agree on. It is about working together to solve problems that face our society as a whole. If our political leaders are always in the campaign competitive mode, it makes compromise and collaboration much more difficult.

Furthermore, in continuous campaigns it is necessary for members of Congress to spend as much time as possible back in their districts. Members are spending less time in Washington. The basis of their relationship with other members tends to depend almost solely on interactions of political and policy competition. They are not developing relationships with other members that transcend political issues. The newly founded Center Aisle Caucus in Congress realized this and took action at the 2010 State of the Union Address when it encouraged Republicans and Democrats to sit next to each other, rather than among their partisans. It turned out to be a bipartisan “date night.”

Thirdly, we have seen the massive growth of electronic news outlets; instantaneous communication with text messaging and Twitter; and the growth of blogs, websites and Facebook sites. The growth of these new communication tools means when one side in a political debate makes a comment, the opposition reacts quickly with its “spin” on the statement, and off we go. Communication is not face-to-face; “facts” are not checked; the logic may be flawed; there is little deliberative discussion and very little listening.

By word and example
While I am an optimist, I am not naïve. It is difficult to make major structural changes to our system’s decision-making rules that may ease this problem. But we can all engage in civil discourse as citizens, and we can raise the expectations we have of our leaders. 

As citizens we can:

  • Recognize that in a multicultural society such as the U.S., individuals and groups are going to have different and hence competing visions of the future for our society.
  • Show genuine respect for those whose ideas compete with our own.
  • Pay attention and engage in thoughtful listening. Silence can be a marvelous activity for learning.
  • Be inclusive. Listen to, and be open to, all points of view. In our multicultural world we can learn much from those with differing cultural backgrounds.
  • Assert ourselves – but at the right time. Don’t be bashful about stating our case for our point of view. We do service to others as well as ourselves when we do this.
  • Speak truth; do not exaggerate facts or evidence. Speak plainly and to the point.
  • Support our arguments with strong underlying logic and evidence.
  • Be accountable for what we say, and how we say it. And also hold our leaders accountable.
  • Understand that our point of view may not prevail. Be prepared to not always have our way with policy decisions; accept that perhaps our solution may not be the best.
  • And, as members of the St. Norbert College community, we can follow the Norbertine ideal of communio characterized by mutual esteem, trust, sincerity, faith and responsibility and lived through open dialogue, communication, consultation and collaboration.