Is civility America’s lost cause?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

From Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson’s ad in Florida demonizing Republican Dan Webster as “Taliban Dan,” to Republican Sharon Angle’s ads in Nevada demonizing Latinos, negative campaigning reached new lows in the 2010 election cycle.


Grayson and Angle both lost. But since their opponents aired their share of attack ads, it’s hard to tell what worked with voters and what didn’t.


What we do know is that going negative was the preferred strategy in most campaigns. According to The New York Times, more than half of all political television ads during the mid-term election campaign were attack ads, continuing a trend that has tracked steadily upward since 2004.


Even so-called debates — mostly 60-second sound-bites from stump speeches — were filled with charges and counter-charges about personal history and absurd attempts to score “gotcha” moments.


Although attack ads and negative campaigns probably don’t cause liberals to vote for conservatives or vice versa, they do considerable damage to the body politic by stoking the anger of the base in both parties with messages that are frequently false or misleading.


As a consequence, no matter which party controls the levers of power in Washington, D.C., or in statehouses, serious debate over serious issues has become increasingly rare in a political arena poisoned by name-calling, ridicule and the politics of personal destruction.


Politicians who dare to practice civility by reaching across the aisle — from Sen. Bob Bennett on the right to Sen. Russ Feingold on the left (both defeated in their bids for re-election) — are a vanishing breed.


Just to be clear, I’m not calling for fake civility — “niceness” that papers over disagreements or discourages dissent. In politics (as in religion), differences matter.


By civility, I mean robust and honest debate focused on issues and guided by constitutional principles. In his outstanding but little-heeded book, The Case for Civility, Os Guinness argues that “far from stifling debate civility helps to strengthen debate because of its respect for truth, yet all the while keeping debate constructive and within bounds because of its respect for the rights of other people and for the common good.”


Oddly enough, large numbers of Americans clamor for civility, telling pollsters how disgusted they are with negative campaigning and partisan governing. At the same time, however, talk shows and cable news programs that specialize in personal attacks and overheated rhetoric are enormously popular. However noble we wish we were, demagoguery sells.


The guilty pleasure many Americans appear to take in mud-slinging campaigns doesn’t stop the same people from demanding that schools fix the mess by teaching “good citizenship.” And many schools strive to do just that in a counter-cultural attempt to instill civic virtue in the next generation of voters.


In fact, I spent the weekend before the election at the Character Education Partnership annual forum, listening to educators from schools from across the country talk about their commitment to building strong civic character. Through class meetings, peer mediation, shared decision-making and other strategies, a growing number of schools are encouraging free speech that is also responsible, civil and informed. (For more about these “schools of character,” visit www.character.org.)


While waiting for these civilized kids to graduate, we need to acknowledge our role in sustaining a dysfunctional political arena in which every major public-policy fight is a zero-sum game. It’s easy to blame politicians, just as we blame network executives or Hollywood producers for the drivel that passes for “entertainment” on screens small and large. But we, the voters — like we, the media consumers — are the enablers.


If victorious lawmakers return to Washington and statehouses with the next election in sight — determined to do whatever it takes to retain power and defeat the other side — then they will not make the tough choices needed to address the host of challenges facing our nation. Only when voters signal a willingness to punish incivility, and reward political courage, bipartisan solutions and civil dialogue, will politicians change course.


But reading the political tea leaves, I suspect that any call for civil discourse is a lost cause in the current climate of anger and fear. Nevertheless, we who still believe in rational discourse and common-good solutions should keep making the case for civility.


Our future may depend on it.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.