As someone who has dedicated herself to improving the civility of our public debate for about 4 years now, this has been a depressing week. I believe in my DNA that our country is best served when very different people bring very different ideas to the table, we mix and stir and sometimes get downright angry but we stay connected in a higher cause that we share. That higher cause is our country. I think this is what makes America who we are.
This week I found myself wondering if we still share a higher cause. I think that the reaction to President Obama speaking to children was just sad. We have reached a point where the distrust of a sitting president is so deep, some of us don’t even want our children to hear him speak.
As President Obama entered the joint session of Congress last night, I teared up a bit when the Sergeant-At-Arms announced him. I thought: Here we are disagreeing fantastically and we still have a wonderfully stable state, where the president is announced as he always has been, whatever party he is a part of.
That warm fuzzy feeling lasted until “You lie.” Back to depression.
I want to share with you a wise quote I read a lifetime ago and it’s stuck with me… “You can only be as honest with other people as you are with yourself.” Again, “you can only be as honest with other people as you are with yourself.”
I think we suffer desperately now from a whole truckload of being dishonest with ourselves. We’ve isolated ourselves into hermetically sealed ideological groups. Think Shia and Sunni. We really believe what we say, even if we’re jaw-droppingly factually wrong, because everyone in our hermetically sealed jar thinks it’s true. We really believe the other person is a shameful liar, and we don’t trust them, and it’s just a skip and a hop from there to thinking they’re evil.
I often ask myself where this stops and how? Again, think Shia and Sunni.
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Three factors exacerbate this paralysis by lack of analysis: labels, lifestyles and listening.
First, the labels ascribed to many potential policy tools render sensible options taboo, loading what could be rational, economic or social measures with moral baggage. This narrows our choices, hemming in policy makers.
Any proposal including the words “government-run” elicits cries of “socialism” and “communism.” Any argument invoking the words “God” or “moral” sparks accusations of “right-wing extremism,” “facism,” or “Bible-thumping.” Instead of listening to each other’s ideas, we spot the warning label and run the other way.
Second, our lifestyles favor knee-jerk reactions. The way we think, work and live in the Digital Age demands we quickly categorize information without investing time into rich interaction, research and understanding.
We’re hesitant to ask questions because we don’t have time to listen to the long, complicated answers that might follow. And we lack the time to fact-check competing claims. In our haste, it’s easier to echo our party’s position than drill down, questioning whether party leaders are motivated by our best interests or the best interests of their biggest contributors.
Third, we tend to listen only to like-minded opinions as media fragmentation encourages us to filter out varying perspectives. If you’re a liberal, you avoid FOX News. If you’re a conservative you revile MSNBC. The dynamic is even more pronounced online, where a niche media source can be found for any outlook.
This silences the opportunity for meaningful dialogue and deliberation that might lead to reformulating positions, forging sustainable compromises, and developing consensus crucial to moving our nation forward on complex issues.
Florida State Senator Dan Gelber wrote this morning about his father Judge Seymour Gelber’s 90th birthday. (Judge Gelber was also formerly the Mayor of Miami Beach). Anyone who follows us knows we find a lot of wisdom in the way things used to be and we just love knowing each other as neighbors, so I was a sucker for this story. I’ll let Senator Gelber take it from here:
My Dad has always believed that the mark of a great public servant was accepting that anything truly good you do will come to fruition when you are long gone from public life. In the age of constant media cycles and focus groups, his views might be considered outdated or quaint. But today as Florida faces so many challenges borne out of short-term thinking and shallow policies, I think my Dad and his bowties are still pretty fashionable.
Please take a moment to read a son’s 90th birthday tribute in its entirety. As we trade fire in the partisan wars, we might do well to remember dads like this one.
And Happy Birthday, Judge Gelber.
POSTSCRIPT: I googled Senator Gelber’s dad and found this wonderful YouTube video that speaks volumes both to his character and his ability to wear a bowtie.
In a study titled “There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification” published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, sociologists from four major research institutions looked into the high level of persistent belief in America that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were responsible for the attacks of 9/11, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The study results:
“Our data shows substantial support for a cognitive theory known as ‘motivated reasoning,’ which suggests that rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe…The study demonstrates voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information. The argument here is that people get deeply attached to their beliefs.”
The researchers describe the observed pattern of motivated reasoning is a “serious challenge to democratic theory and practice that results when citizens with incorrect information cannot form appropriate preferences or evaluate the preferences of others.”
So, to recap… We’ve broken ourselves into feuding teams which are no longer making governing decisions based on reality but on what we want to pretend is true?
(Postscript: If you’re liberal and feeling smug right about now, then think again. You do it too.)
Andrew Romano argues in this week’s Newsweek that while real bipartisanship used to exist, we won’t be seeing it in Washington anytime soon. He blames it on what he sees as a rightward shift in the Republican party.
Fact is, the sort of Republicans who voted for Medicare in 1965 no longer exist. Since the early 1970s, Democrats have drifted only slightly leftward. But thanks to realignment and redistricting – the practice of slicing the electoral map into ever more politically homogenous districts – a 2003 Republican House member with a voting record at the median of his party was about 73 percent more conservative than his Nixon-era counterpart. Which means he was about 73 percent less likely to reach across the aisle – no matter who was reaching out from the other side. And the odds are only getting longer. In 2006 the GOP lost most of its remaining moderates: Lincoln Chafee, Rob Simmons, Charlie Bass, Jim Leach. Three years later, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter defected to the Dems.
(Photo credit. And, hmmm, I wonder where he got 73%?)
Apparently there are tribes in Africa on to something that has eluded the people of the greatest nation on planet earth in the 21st century (so far, anyway).
These clans of African tribesmen, managing the sometimes tenuous relationships between clans, solved their civility problem by marrying into the other clan. This sociological pattern stabilized their society so that the normal conflicts involved in life – whether it’s life in Philly or in sub-Saharan Africa – didn’t escalate to unmanageable levels. With these marriages, people were then connected to each other in multiple ways. You might have a bone to pick with “them” because of tribal identity (maybe literally “a bone,” in tribal Africa) but since “they” were also your in-laws, there was only so far you were ever going to push the disagreement.
This edifying story comes to us via Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart” that describes the need for us to have “cross-cutting” relationships with each other. (This book is required reading and John Marks is most notably NOT exempt.) A healthy society has relationships where you change who is your “friend” and who is your “enemy” inside of different contexts. My husband might be my friend in most every way, but he is also my enemy when we root against each other’s alma mater in football or, in my parents’ case, when they reported dutifully every election day to cancel each others vote out.
Back in the day, mom and dad would nearly always joke about it as they both wheeled out of the driveway in the midst of their crazy-busy lives to cast their precious vote that meant exactly ZERO given their difference of opinion. (You’ve got to love this concept of democracy that makes otherwise sane people do such an insane thing in service of high principle when they could have just sat back in marital-collusion and had a glass of wine instead.)
Crosscutting connection is the same wisdom practiced by feuding European nations looking to make peace by offering up a son or daughter to an arranged marriage. Of course we know in hindsight it didn’t always work, but that’s a story for another day (and The Village Square gives them an “A” for effort).
Problem is, crosscutting relationships are so – well – yesterday. As we discussed last week, everything is trending in the direction that we find ourselves in groups of increasingly like-minded people. When the same “enemy” is always on the “other side,” the relationship is no longer crosscutting and doesn’t stabilize anything. Fact is, when relationships don’t cross- cut, given the distinctly imperfect nature of human beings, relationships can be pretty much incendiary. You get consistently and increasingly angry with the same people (ergo, fistfights and swastikas at town halls).
We live in a time when we look at Mary Matalin and James Carville and think that there is simply no explanation but that it is a loveless business-relationship-slash-publicity-stunt to get them booked on Meet the Press. (While I’m using them as a rhetorical tool here, you still can’t convince me they like each other in the slightest and the stunt has certainly worked on the MTP front.)
Bishop writes: “One of the tenets of democratic faith has been that direct, face-to-face contact between groups on different sides of an issue defines a self-governing people.” Perhaps if we agree on nothing else, we agree that we’re not doing so well on self-governing by this measure – unless “face-to-face” includes flinging Hitler posters to and fro.
So what can we make of this entrenched overwhelming division currently on America’s plate? Despite the complexity of the problem, the solution – potentially – is as simple as a few dinners out (at the “potato salad school of diplomacy”).
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square in Tallahassee. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Galloway writes in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on a new civility project out of Atlanta:
At least one Republican thinks the harsh language and disruptions weâ€™ve seen at town hall meetings across the country constitute a blunder â€” both moral and strategic â€” that could hurt the conservative cause in the long run.
Mark DeMoss is a conservative Southern Baptist whose Buckhead-based public relations firm serves evangelical organizations. He supported Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primary.
Earlier this year, he joined with Lanny Davis, a prominent Washington Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter, to form something called the Civility Project.
The rules, which can be found at civilityproject.org, are simple: â€œ(1) I will be civil in public discourse and behavior; (2) I will be respectful of others, whether or not I agree with them; and (3) I will stand up and call out incivility whenever I see it.â€
Three events pushed DeMoss toward a demand for better manners in politics. â€œI saw an awful lot of pretty ugly rhetoric directed at Mormons in general or Mitt Romney in particular, and then eventually at me â€” because I was helping a Mormon,â€ DeMoss said. â€œAnd a lot of it came from my own camp, from evangelicals.â€
Then there was the November vote in California to ban gay marriage. â€œBecause Mormons gave so much money in support of Proposition 8, you had these cases of gay activists vandalizing Mormon churches,â€ he said.
At the same time, DeMoss was put off by certain comments from conservatives following Barack Obamaâ€™s victory. â€œI didnâ€™t vote for him, I donâ€™t agree with him on much of anything, but I didnâ€™t think it was right,â€ he said.
DeMoss knows that some conservatives will think him wimpish for urging politeness. But he assures those who disagree that civility and surrender are not the same.
As a rule, civility keeps you humble and clears your head. Incivility amounts to a display of contempt. And a lack of respect for oneâ€™s adversary is often the first step toward disaster. See â€œCuster, George Armstrong.â€
DeMoss would add that rudeness in the health care debate, aside from making poor video, has struck many as weakness. â€œIs my case against it not strong enough on its merits, so that Iâ€™d have to stop it by disrupting meetings and causing chaos?â€ he posed. â€œThatâ€™s a sad admission.â€
Our friends over at Civil Politics .org have put together a smart pledge to help us move past the current partisan rancor. Got about 30 seconds? Jump on over and sign it! If you’ve got even more time (18 minutes) watch Professor Jonathan Haidt from University of Virginia in the above video on fascinating differences in moral reasoning between liberals and conservatives (watch the whole thing and be slow to take offense… he’s making a point).
Here’s their pledge:
I hereby pledge:
1) To take into account a candidate’s civility when voting. I understand that electoral politics requires offense, defense, and sharp elbows, but I will consider personal attacks made by candidates and their surrogates to be marks of dishonor and warning signs of a divisive leader to come.
2) To model civil politics in my own life. I will argue for what I believe in and against those with whom I disagree, but I will show respect for my opponents by assuming that they are as sincere in their beliefs as I am in mine. Knowing how moralistic and self-righteous we all are, I will refrain from assuming the worst about the motives and character of those I disagree with. I will criticize their ideas instead.
Here’s the first take-home lesson and this one practically screamed out at us… the free market is broken when it comes to health care. A left vs. right argument about free markets vs. government intervention misses the mark, since even if we all agree that we want a prototypical American market-driven solution, we’re left with the overwhelming evidence that the market has failed; the “patient” is positively hemorrhaging hundred dollar bills. So the question then becomes which idea can make the market work to drive down costs?
While there is some level of agreement on diagnosis, the agreement ends on prescription. Liberals tend to think we increase competition by having a public plan to keep the private insurance companies in line. Conservatives think government would have an unfair advantage and drive the private insurers out of business; some conservatives think this is the left’s ulterior motive. (It seems that to the extent that the goal is increased competition, it seems clear that the government should compete on a level playing field with private insurers.)
Another question we might ask is whether health care can ever be a commodity in a functional free market system. There isn’t a natural supply and demand curve, since health care is often not optional or something you shop around for. Additionally, there is always a person – the doctor – between the customer and the insurer, muddying any self-regulating forces we might hope to see at work.
Conservatives think we can increase competition by allowing companies to compete nationally instead of state by state (which usually includes only a handful of competitors). Conservative David Frum recommends regulating insurance federally, saving the bureaucratic complications of having 50 different insurance markets (exponentially more when you look at variations that currently exist between cities in the same state).
Might this been a problem screaming for The Village Square “power of AND?” What if we allowed insurers to compete nationally, streamlined insurance regulation by federalizing it AND added a public option than had no advantage over private insurers? Just wondering…
Apparently some liberals don’t think some conservatives have already made town halls quite shrill enough. Apparently they like a little combustion with their decision-making:
The right-wing nuts who cry that ObamaCare is introducing euthanasia for the elderly and infirm, or that it is socialism, are ignorant wackos, to be sure, but they are right about one thing: Americans are about to be royally screwed on health care reform by the president and the Democratic Congress, just as they’ve been screwed by them on financial system “reform.”
The appropriate response to this screw-job is the one the right has adopted: shut these sham “town meetings” down, and run the sell-out politicians out of town on a rail, preferably coated in tar and feathers they way the snake-oil salesmen of old used to be handled!
This is not about civil discourse. This is about propaganda… The only proper response at this point is obstruction, and the more militant and boisterous that obstruction, the better.
(Photo credit. Got to like the pork rinds and beer bottle with the gasoline for a little color.)