Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The civility crisis is real, not imagined

April 14, 2011 by David Eisner


This post by National Constitution Center President CEO David Eisner appeared in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

As the country braced for a potential government shutdown last week, I couldn't help but wonder: Would we be a disappointment to our forefathers? Why haven't we inherited their legacy of compromise?

More than two centuries ago, the nation's founders also faced deep ideological divides. Ultimately, though, their vast differences and bitter debates didn't prevent them from creating a new democracy. In perspective, their momentous task dwarfs our own struggles.

At a recent conference on civility at the National Constitution Center, filmmaker Ken Burns, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach, and other leaders and pundits from across the spectrum agreed that political dialogue today is more polarized, less civil, and less effective than at any time in American history, with the important exception of the run-up to the Civil War.

Moreover, the deterioration of our political dialogue hasn't happened because of the tea-party movement, President Obama, or former President George W. Bush. Rather, it's taken place gradually over a period of decades. It's true that there have been significant episodes of incivility since the founding of the republic, including a caning on the floor of the Senate and a duel involving the sitting vice president. And political campaigns have featured name-calling and worse for more than 200 years.

Many tea-party activists believe recent calls for more civil public discourse are nothing more than an effort by those in power to make them sit down and shut up. In some respects, they're right: Appeals for decorum have at times served to muffle and delegitimize voices of dissent. Yet the fact that some such calls are disingenuous doesn't mean that civility is never a legitimate issue. And at this moment of political paralysis, it is.

A portrait of all the living presidents. Photo by Flickr user Beverly & Pack.

There is a broad consensus on the impact of today's brand of incivility: When people can't talk to each other, they can't solve important problems. But there are many competing views on the cause and the solution.

Fine-tuned election districts that encourage candidates to play to the extremes, a coarser popular culture, poor civics education, and isolation within ideologically narrow communities are all blamed by some and dismissed by others. About the only factor most experts agree on is the media. If you want your voice to be heard today, public-relations experts say, you have to break through the "white noise" - the cacophony of stories and issues demanding attention in the media. And the best way to break through is to be controversial, edgy, and extreme.

It's hard to overstate the difficulty of removing the grime of incivility from the gears of political discourse.

"Today's white noise has been darkened by incivility, especially in our political discourse. It's hard to overstate the difficulty of removing the grime of incivility from the gears of political discourse. Witness the failure of two successive presidential administrations - one Republican, one Democratic - to live up to their promises to bring a new bipartisanship to Washington. And consider that two congressmen have called for Obama's impeachment for U.S. actions in Libya.

Some of the biggest challenges we face - the federal budget, economic recovery, domestic security, international conflicts, and the challenges of globalism - all require U.S. policymakers to communicate better, compromise more, embrace complexity, and be flexible. Yet our winner-take-all dialogue forces them to be simplistic, rigid, and sound-bite-ready.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D., Ind.), who served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, told the recent Constitution Center gathering that television producers regularly tell him they can't book him because his views are too nuanced or moderate. Combat makes better television than discussion does.

And yet there are glimmers of hope. Citizens in nine countries, including Pakistan, Kuwait, India, Croatia, and Poland, tuned in to the recent forum on civility. The same week, Obama and former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush honored George H.W. Bush's legacy of service at a Kennedy Center tribute. To a standing ovation, Clinton said his relationship with the elder Bush reminded him "all over again how much energy we waste fighting with each other over things that don't matter."

The media tend to diminish the friendship that's grown between Presidents Clinton and Bush as a nice little side story. But wouldn't it be interesting if it were actually big news? It could be regarded as the beginning of a new way for political adversaries to talk, compromise, and ultimately solve important problems together - much as our founders created the road map for a democracy that welcomes the many voices of its people.


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