The Value Of Civility In Today's Political Conversation

Nov 2, 2018

With David Folkenflik

Civility in our shared national political conversation: Do we need it? How do we get it back?


David French, senior writer at National Review. (@DavidAFrench)

Steven Olikara, founder and president of Millennial Action Project, a nonpartisan organization of young lawmakers working to transcend the partisan divide. (@StevenOlikara)

Megan Anderson, founder of Craft Beer & Conversation.

Emily Larson, mayor of Duluth, Minnesota. In 2003, the city of Duluth enacted something called “Speak Your Peace,” a campaign to urge citizens and leaders to communicate more respectfully. (@LarsonForDuluth)

From The Reading List

PBS NewsHour: “Nearly 80 percent of Americans concerned lack of civility in politics will lead to violence, poll says” — “Days after a failed mail bomb plot and a deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, most Americans say they are concerned that a lack of civility in Washington, D.C., will lead to violence, including acts of terror, according to the latest poll from the PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist.

“Approaching a crucial midterm election, 79 percent of Americans said they are concerned or very concerned that the negative tone of national politics will prompt violence. That concern was prominent across the political spectrum, with 92 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of those who identify as independent all in agreement.

“‘You don’t get a consensus like that across party lines very often,’ said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll.”

The Hill: “Opinion: Civility will not fix our democracy — only politics can” — “The national concern over civility — or lack thereof — in our public discourse is apparently one of the few bipartisan issues left in American politics. At a rally on Wednesday, President Donald Trump, seemingly without a trace of irony, said Americans ‘should stop treating political opponents as morally defective’ and urged the media and his Democratic adversaries to ‘set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility’ toward conservatives. Republicans such as Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz should not be accosted by protestors and activists while dining at restaurants. It’s uncivil.

“And after pipe bombs were mailed to Democratic critics of President Trump, Hillary Clinton agreed that vituperative language is a problem in our culture, but reiterated that Trump and the Republicans are to blame for it. ‘You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for,’ Clinton said earlier this month. Though Trump and Clinton thus differ on the sources of our incivility, both imply that Americans need to stop yelling at each other and settle disagreements in a respectful, sympathetic (if not empathetic) tone.

“But calls to overcome our political divisions with greater civility are misguided, if not futile. This is because for much of American history, particularly in times of crisis, incivility reveals larger problems that can be addressed only by politics, not by civility. In fact, calls for civility historically are efforts to stifle struggles for improvement, to impede the progress of history.”

New York Times: “Opinion: Recovering the (Lost) Art of Civility” — “Can anything be done to reduce the acrimony in American society?

“Recently I spoke with David Fairman, the managing director of the Consensus Building Institute and associate director of the M.I.T.-Harvard Public Disputes Program. For three decades, Mr. Fairman has been helping groups of people — often with long histories of bitter opposition — to get to a place where they can talk respectfully with one another and even find ways to work meaningfully together.

“Mr. Fairman has had success working on many issues, including human rights, climate change, economic development, education and criminal justice policy. He has the rare talent of envisioning pathways forward through what appear to be intractable conflicts. I asked him to reflect on the divide in America today.”

Civility. It sounds quaint. Aspirational. Archaic. Incivility appears to be the order of the day. It may be asymmetrical, embodied by an unrepentant president and by violent actors who adopt his rhetoric. Yet it is also embraced by confrontational anti-Trump protesters, who see civility as a means of smothering their concerns. Yet, civility helps daily life function. So how to turn down the temperature in a fractious era?

This hour, On Point: the role civility plays in a civil society.

— David Folkenflik

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