Does Civility Work?

In commenting on the reasons for the latest deluge of vitriolic negative advertisement released by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, a political pundit gave a simple explanation: “Civility doesn’t work.”

But there is a prior question that must be addressed before one can discuss what “works,” or not: What is one trying to accomplish?

If the primary goal of politicians is to get elected or re-elected, then there is ample evidence that negative advertising works and civility doesn’t work.

But imagine with me the possibility of politicians being committed to the goal of “governing;” proposing and passing legislation that promotes the common good. For that hypothetical goal, it is clear that “incivility doesn’t work;” civil political discourse is required. Politicians on both sides of the political aisle must listen to the each other’s points of view, and talk respectfully about their agreements and disagreements as they seek to forge legislative common ground.

The prevalence of political posturing in place of a commitment to “govern well” is likely to become painfully obvious once again in the aftermath to the recent tragic massacre in Aurora. What possible reason is there to allow any U. S. citizen to purchase an assault weapon? Freedom without limits is license. Why is it so difficult for those on both sides of the political aisle to find the common ground of legislating “reasonable limits” on the freedom to purchase guns? I think that a major reason for this failure is that taking a courageous stand on gun control is viewed by many politicians as committing political suicide (for an extended conversation on gun control, see the “Alternative Political Conversation” on that topic, to be launched elsewhere on this web site on August 8).

As if the call to politicians to commit to the goal of “governing” is not radical enough, try to also imagine what seems like an even more utopian goal: Political discourse that is informed by a commitment to creating a polity where all persons are treated with the decency and respect that is due to another human being. For that lofty hypothetical goal, it is also clear that “incivility doesn’t work;” civil political discourse is required. To accomplish that goal, we must respect each other enough to listen well and then engage in civil conversation about our disagreements.

I can only imagine the protests of some of my readers: “get real, Harold, that isn’t the way politics works.” That shot of realism is well taken, given present practice in the political realm. But if politics is the endeavor by which citizens seek to uncover and promote a common good that will enable human beings to flourish, both individually and collectively, then the problem lies not with the two lofty goals that I embrace, but with the impoverished goal of just getting elected.

So, what to do? A possible place to start is with us, the Electorate. We reward those who resort to viscous negative advertising that demeans other human beings by electing them to office. We reward those who resort to political posturing in place of governing by electing them to office. We provide little external incentive for politicians to “govern well” or to treat their political opponents with dignity and respect.

And some of us who profess to be followers of Jesus are among the worst culprits. Too many of us have uncritically jumped on the bandwagon, adding our voices to the prevailing incivility of political discourse. That is especially tragic since my two loftier goals are deeply informed by a Christian faith perspective (at the same time that they can be shared by all persons of good will because of our common humanity). To commit to governing in a way that seeks a “common good” is a deep expression of what it means to “love my neighbor,” to which Jesus has called all Christians (Mark 12: 30-31). To create a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with me and to talk respectfully about our disagreements is another deep expression of what it means to love that person.

As the political pundits are quick to point out, “Christian Voters” are a significant portion of our Electorate. So, now would be a good time for Christians to stand up in huge numbers and say “we are fed up with the incivility in political discourse;” “we will cast our votes only for those who are committed to “governing well” and for treating their political opponents with dignity and respect;” “our Christian convictions will settle for nothing less.” That dream pushes utopianism to a new unprecedented level. But, through the eyes of faith, I dare to envision that possibility.