Civil Discourse

Type “politics is…” into Google, and you might get “politics is war without bloodshed,” “…the art of the possible,” and “…war by other means,” in descending order. Politics and governance can be nasty, brutish business.

The League of Women Voters of Oregon has chosen Civil Discourse as a recommended program item for 2017-2018. Delegates to the state convention in early June also voted to accept by concurrence the Civil Discourse position of LWV San Luis Obispo:
“Promote civil discourse thr ough action and education for all government bodies, staff, and citizens for the purpose of improved public policy decisions and processes. Civil discourse means, at a minimum, mutually respectful, courteous, constructive, and orderly communication.” 

Are things worse than they used to be?  A few views: Linguist and local author Rosemarie Ostler spoke earlier this year to our League. She shared signs of negative campaigning and outrageous political invective as an American tradition. What’s new is the flood of TV ads, talk show commentary, blog posts and social media. More money in politics also means more noise, Ostler told us.  “A suggestion on polarization: Get used to it. It’s not going away anytime soon.”

That’s from Jane Mansbridge, former president of the American Political Science Association. We haven’t gotten grumpier over the years, she says, but the two major political parties have stopped working across the aisle in many chambers. Mansbridge blames gradual party realignment, closer elections and inequality.

Realignment took off after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and with that the parties in Congress became more electorally competitive. Since 1980, the minority party (nationally and in some states) has behaved as if it might have a shot at the next election – reducing incentives to cooperate and collaborate. Mansbridge also cites rising income inequality, which appears to feed and be fed by polarization.

Linguist and author Geoffrey Nunberg says the line between private and public discourse has eroded. Traditional media have been decentralized, and our language and conduct have been changing. It’s become more common for elected leaders and pundits to bring the informality and rudeness of everyday conversation into public discourse.

Nunberg argues “Incivility, like misspelling, is just much more evident now than it ever was, but I don’t know that people are actually more uncivil…. There used to be official norms of civility that people felt obliged at least to pretend to conform to that no longer hold.“ Nunberg has been thinking about allegiances: “You don’t feel a moral obligation to the truth so much as a moral obligation to the point of view that’s consistent with your side’s advantage.”

National Review writer David French says Americans don’t love our ideas so much as we despise our opponents. With distinctions in TV and Internet habits, church membership, neighborhood residency, voting actions and more, French says we could be in the beginning of a national divorce. The big question, he asks, is this: “If we seek to preserve our union, we’re left with a choice — try to dominate or learn to tolerate?”

The Pew Research Center’s data seem to back up French on polarizing trends in political engagement and activism. Party members, for instance, tend to see members of the other group as more closed-minded (and worse) than other Americans. Yikes!

How do we tackle dilemmas of polarization and incivility?
There’s evidence that, in public discourse, “We prize contentiousness and aggression more than cooperation and conciliation,” according to linguist Deborah Tannen. She calls it the “argument culture.” Opposition and debate become ways to get things done, discuss ideas and cover news. Yet, according to Tannen, “Smashing heads does not open minds.” For most of us, over the long haul, relationships require approaches other than domination.

In the coming months, please plan to join us in civil discourse conversations. Check out League resources that point to how we might move from confrontation to dialogue, even when we disagree. Help us support thoughtful, fact- and values-based discussions in which community members and public officials come to the table to talk about vital is-sues.

Rosemarie Ostler urged support for campaign finance reform, letting elected repre-sentatives know we expect them to be positive and productive, and personally filtering what we read and hear using such nonpartisan fact-checkers as Politifact and Oh, and this: Step away from the computer!