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After the Arizona shooting, the civility movement sees tipping point

Calls for unity in response to the Arizona shooting are seen as an opportunity for the civility movement to tackle partisan rancor.

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Yet many have also responded to the shooting with calls for unity. Indeed, in his Jan. 12 speech at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting, President Obama urged Americans to talk “with each other in a way that heals,” declaring that “what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.”

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And to a growing number of activists and experts in the business of civility, it appears partisan rancor is reaching a tipping point. They say that changing the tone of political rhetoric can’t be just a vague aspiration, but is an absolute imperative – and must take the form of a concrete, organized effort.

More to the point, many believe it’s doable.

“This is possible,” insists Nancy Jacobson, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and cofounder of the new bipartisan group No Labels, which defines its mission in part as supporting politicians who put labels aside and work across the aisle.

No Labels aims to represent what it sees as the underserved “majority” of Americans, whose views lie in the center of the political spectrum, rather than at the extremes. Instead of policy and issues, the focus is on “attitude and approach”: finding ways to support and reward – rather than punish – politicians who reach across the aisle. The group’s “code of conduct” for politicians is centered on civility and respect. “What we are about is changing behavior,” says Ms. Jacobson. “And putting pressure on politicians to do just that.”

No Labels has already drawn criticism and even derision from some (New York Times columnist Frank Rich mocked the group’s “faith in kumbaya as an antidote to what ails a polarized Washington”). But there’s evidence that its efforts have an audience. A 2010 survey by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., found a “growing concern about the implications of an uncivil body politic.” Citizens paying “close attention” to politics were four times more likely to say the tone in politics had gotten worse in recent years. And 95 percent said civility in politics was important for a healthy democracy.

“To me, it’s so clear that it’s in the interests of the American people to have the parties actually dialoguing,” says Mark Gerzon, founder of the Mediators Foundation. Mr. Gerzon, who facilitated bipartisan congressional retreats from 1995 to 2007, points to a growing network of groups fostering Democratic-Republican dialogue at federal, state, and community levels. Efforts like this can have a profound effect, he says: By the end of a 1997 House retreat, “people said, ‘I don’t remember who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican.’ ”

Key to the retreat’s success, says Gerzon, were the ground rules: “No personal attacks”; “When others speak, listen”; “Be open to other points of view”; and “Treat the sessions as confidential.” It did change the way members did business, if temporarily. A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia found noticeable improvement in civility on the floor of the House immediately after the retreat. Members were more likely to express desire for compromise as name-calling, aspersion, and hyperbole dropped.

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