A Governor's Attack on Academic Freedom

Politicians have fallen off the Civility Cliff and need to be Sequestered

The Lost Art of Civility

Civility: It seems to be discussed everywhere today. It seems to be misunderstood in most of those discussions. I have written about the loss of civility in society many times, but it always is worth a return visit since I believe it is the number one issue preventing our government from functioning in a way that serves the public good. Whether we are taking about “the fiscal cliff” or “sequestration,” the common theme is incivility in politics is driving most Americans, especially the middle-class that politicians purport to care about, to lose all hope that they ever will be able to achieve the American Dream.

The word ‘civility’ shares an etymological root with the idea of ‘citizenship’ on the one hand, and of ‘civilization’ on the other. The first sense of civility, reflecting the link to the concept of citizenship, is found in the idea of ‘civic behavior.’ Political theorist John Rawls argues that political legitimacy must be based on public reason. As such, ‘the ideal of citizenship imposes a moral, not a legal, duty—the duty of civility—to be able to explain to one another . . . the principles and policies they advocate and vote for’.

For those directly engaged in politics, this means listening to others, being tolerant of views other than one’s own, and recognizing that the principle of ‘shared governance’ must be put ahead of one’s own ideological claim. In other words, a civil society depends on the ability of its leaders to look beyond self-interest and make decisions based on what is best for the country. Given that Democrats and Republicans typically have different views on this matter, the fact is compromise is the basis for having a civil society because it involves listening to others and recognizing one side or the other cannot always get what it wants but, in the interests of the country, a middle ground must be found.

I have previously blogged about an interesting poll that was taken in 2010 by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research: Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey. The survey asked 1,000 American adults to express their views about the tone and level of civility in government and traditional and social media. Here are some of the results: (1) two in three respondents believe civility is a major problem while three in four believe the problem has gotten worse; (2) three in four said the financial crisis and recession made the level of civility in America worse; (3) just one in four expect civility to improve while one in three think it will get worse; (4) not surprisingly, the government and politics were identified as having the least civil discourse and a majority characterized America’s high schools, talk radio, and Hollywood celebrities as uncivil. No argument there from me.

The 2012 survey was recently released and the overall results are about the same. In other words, we’ve made no progress in becoming more civil during the past two years. You might say we are falling off the cliff of a civilized society.

Americans of all political persuasions agree that civility is a major problem today (65% of Republicans, 63% of Democrats and 62% of Independents). However, Democrats are somewhat more likely to believe civility has improved over the past few years and will continue to get better. Republicans and Independents expect civility to get worse. No surprise here because everything done by our Congressional “representatives” is driven by party affiliation and a desire to make the other party look stupid while avoiding looking stupid while doing so. Both parties have failed on this account. They all look stupid and are getting stupider by the day.

Compared to the blame pointed at politicians, government officials and the economic downturn, corporate America (42%) is less often faulted for making civility worse. Notably, the Internet and social media are also less likely to be mentioned as causing our current uncivil state of affairs. It is surprising even to me that politicians and government officials are less civil than what is said and done on the Internet and in the social media.

A civil society cannot avoid tough but important issues, simply because they are unpleasant to address. There must also be more to civility than a scrupulous adherence to the laws governing public-policy decision making. Clearly, there are numerous instances in which the parties to public-policy conflicts act in ways which are destructive and inappropriate, even though they are (and should continue to be) legal.

In short, any reasonable definition of civility must recognize that the many differing interests which divide our increasingly diverse society will produce an endless series of confrontations over difficult moral and distributional issues. Often these issues will have an irreducible win-lose character and, hence, not be amenable to consensus resolution. While continuing confrontation is inevitable, the enormous destructiveness which commonly accompanies these confrontations is not.

Our nation cannot survive as beacon of light if we cannot make the tough decisions in the name of the public good. We have been witness to the political theater of the absurd for all too many years with our politicians playing the role of blocking what the other party wants to do out of some sense of serving their constituency rather than what the American people really want – just get it done!

Our elected politicians have to stop playing games and become dispassionate advocates for the public good during a time when you can’t satisfy all of the people all, or even most, of the time. Not while we fall deeper into the black hole of over spending and less revenue coming into the government coffers; not because the rich are not taxed enough but because there aren’t enough working Americans to contribute to the revenue system, and all too many depend on government support for their livelihood.

Unfortunately, today our politicians mirror the egoistical society we have become. It manifests itself in selfishness, an unwillingness to compromise for the public good, and level of immaturity and civility as low as I can ever remember. I suppose to expect our politicians to deal intelligently with our problems – as statesmen and stateswomen – is pie in sky thinking today.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 4, 2013