Sunday, January 16, 2011

What is civility in politics?

I came across a post on The Political Carnival accusing House Speaker John Boehner of ending the short-lived "truce" between the parties by issuing a strong statement accusing the Obama administration of embarking on a "jobs destroying spending spree."  (The New York Times, however, notes that Boehner has slightly downgraded his rhetoric by using the term "job-destroying" instead of  his previously favored phrase, "job-killing.")  Ironically, the Political Carnival post was followed by comments making the most vituperative, name-calling, hate-filled remarks you can imagine against Republicans.  So who is being civil and who is being uncivil?  Let's establish some ground rules.

Following up on a previous post, in which I tried to find some helpful guidelines from prominent Los Angeles mediator Ken Cloke to address the question of HOW we should go about toning down our political rhetoric, it might be useful to explain and clarify that restoring civility does not mean that we are going to end disagreement or debate.  Nobody should expect anybody else to abandon any deeply-held political positions, or to let go of their passions.  We should not just smooth over our differences, or sweep them under the rug.  Instead, we need to find a way of talking about those differences without needless, destructive attacks.  The goal is actually to help both sides in the debate achieve more of their goals, rather than foreclosing solutions by political gridlock and destructive argument.

What we should therefore be trying to eliminate from political debate are the following:

1. Name-calling and ad hominem attacks.  You will never persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with you of anything by calling the other side names.  All you do is demonize the other side.  That can never promote a civil dialogue.  Sometimes negotiators refer to this as separating the people from the problem.

2. Questioning motives.  Until proven otherwise, we should assume that people believe in their positions in good faith.  We should try to refrain from questioning their motives, and debate their positions on the merits.

3. Hyperbole.  We should try to debate proposals on their merits, without exaggerating their impact.  If someone proposes tightening up gun registration, that doesn't necessarily mean they want to destroy gun owners' freedoms.  If someone else proposes expanding electronic surveillance, that doesn't necessarily mean we are creating a police state.  Abortion is not the same as genocide.  Requiring people to buy health insurance is not socialism.  We can talk about our fears of where various proposals might lead us without exaggerating those fears or mis-characterizing the opposition's ideas.   

4. Falsehoods.  If we want to restore a civil debate, and tone down the rhetoric, we have to stop lying.  For example, it it indisputable that most of our $14 trillion national debt existed before the Obama administration took office.  Any suggestion that Obama is responsible for the entire debt is just a lie. If somebody wants to complain about the increase in the debt, let's at least be accurate about the amount of that increase.

5. Blaming.  To solve a problem, it is not always helpful to know who caused it.  It also seems unlikely we will agree on that, so arguing about who is to blame is often pointless and just generates more ill-feeling.  And even if you can establish whose fault it is, you still haven't begun to solve the problem.  

Let's apply these guidelines to John Boehner's statement that the Obama administration has embarked on a jobs-destroying spending spree.  I would judge that statement as borderline uncivil.  It contains a bit of hyperbole, some unnecessary blaming, and some unsupported assumptions.  But it doesn't preclude a civil response.  A civil response would first acknowledge that Mr. Boehner feels strongly that spending is out of control, and that he thinks government spending could harm the economy.  We need to let the Speaker know that we have heard his concerns.  Then we might ask Mr. Boehner to explain, because we have not seen the evidence, how increased government spending has destroyed jobs.  We might also ask whether he thinks there might be some kinds of spending that could increase jobs.  Then we might say that we agree that wasteful spending should be eliminated, and we would ask the Speaker to help us identify the spending that he thinks is harmful, so that we can determine if we have any common ground on that issue.  We should also tell him that we agree that we should do everything we can to increase the level of employment, and tell him that we also have some ideas for furthering that common goal.  Would he like to hear some of our ideas?  

In other words, there is no reason why we can't have a civil debate on the issues of government spending and jobs creation, especially since nearly everyone can agree that we are against wasteful spending, and we are for increased employment.  We might disagree on how to achieve those goals, but we might also find some areas of agreement.  But let's not start a new argument on who has broken the "truce."  That would not be civil.


  1. Your points are well expressed. How interesting and even exciting it would be if everyone would adhere to those principles. People are upset for a reason and they do have a point of view. This would make it so much easier to hear points of view and to work on solutions together.

  2. Joe and Suzanne -- fine points. I agree. We could actually get important issues done in a way most Americans could/would appreciate.

    Listen up Steve Cohen. Shame.

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