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Opinion

Can we restore compromise and civility to politics?

Politics used to be the art of the possible. Now it's the art of making pledges that render dealmaking untenable.

By Jim Leach / December 15, 2010



Washington

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I have been crisscrossing the country speaking on the subject of civility and its centrality to American history.

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The good news is that Americans from the left and right tell me they're hungry to reclaim a brand of politics that is spirited, but not mean-spirited. There is widespread recognition that the times demand sacrifice as long as it is mutual and fair.

What is being tested in the wake of unconscionably divisive campaigns is whether a newly divided government can muster sufficient goodwill to accommodate diverse perspectives and function effectively.

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For years, politics has been considered the art of compromise, but for many of today's political activists, compromise is an untenable concept. Yet, if all men are created equal, surely it follows that everybody can learn from somebody else.

Seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual or one political party. Public decisionmaking does not lend itself to certitude. That is why humility is a valued character trait and why civility is the linchpin of our democracy.

Civility is not simply or principally about manners. It doesn't require that vigorous advocacy be avoided. Argumentation is a social good. Without argumentation, there is a tendency toward dogmatism. The door opens to tyranny.

What civility requires is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on one another.

Historical perspective

Our Founders were moral philosophers as well as political activists. They founded a country to protect unalienable, Creator-endowed rights. At the same time, they structured a government to constrain the foibles of human nature.

Because concentrated authority was seen throughout history to have led to abuses, it was assumed that anyone entrusted with political authority was implacably vulnerable to the temptations of power. Accordingly, the Founders, led by James Madison, insisted on a separation-of-powers arrangement for the national government and duplicated the model at the state, county, and city levels.

Tensions between and within branches and levels of government came to characterize the American way. The implicit assumption was that a bifurcated and decentralized partnership in decisionmaking would check the hubris of overreaching officials.

The best and brightest have let us down

The case for a good row is particularly high this year. During the past decade, the best and brightest in government and finance let the public down. It is understandable that many citizens have reached the conclusion that there is a compelling case for change, which, depending on their perspective, could be liberal or conservative.

But all sides should recognize that while there is a vital role for laying out rival political ideas, there is no case for defining political opponents or rival parties as enemies.

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For Americans to declare war on one another is a debilitating, no-win proposition.

Country comes before party. What we need is a revival of old-fashioned notions like concern for the common good or what the 19th-century British utilitarians termed "the greatest good of the greatest number."

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