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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An obstacle to a more civil tone, says Gerzon, is Congress’s setup, particularly in the House, where power lies with party leaders, who dictate strategy and punish those who fall out of line. “If [members] don’t want to play the A versus B game ... then they’re a traitor to the party. It’s a very uncreative way of creating legislation.”Skip to next paragraph
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And extreme rhetoric is an effective – often irresistible – way to grab the spotlight. “One way to get attention is to be more vitriolic,” says Deborah Tannen, author of “The Argument Culture.” Politicians looking for visibility, and media worried about losing viewers, readers, or listeners, have incentives to amp up the volume.
Ultimately, experts agree, when it comes to lasting change, both sides need a motivating force. “There has to be an answer to the ‘why’ – ‘why change?’” says Chasin. She gives the example of a series of successful dialogues she facilitated between a group of pro-choice and pro-life activists after the 1994 fatal shootings at two abortion clinics in the Boston area. Both sides, she says, were seriously afraid of further violence. “They had an answer to the ‘why’ – and they did it.”
And while it may be hard to quantify what those discussions achieved in practical terms – “successful prevention is very hard to prove,” Chasin admits – the two sides found new levels of respect for one another. They shared information, and at one point went to the FBI together. The original plan for four meetings turned into a five-year dialogue.
It’s too early to tell if the Giffords shooting acts as a similar catalyst, but in the short term, higher levels of restraint are apparent. A planned showdown over repealing parts of Mr. Obama’s health-care bill was postponed, and some are calling for new ways to come together.
“I think an event of this kind has a profound impact on politicians,” says former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, now the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “At least for a period ... they will exercise second thoughts about very strong, vitriolic rhetoric.”
Mr. Hamilton hopes the shootings won’t discourage members from meeting the public: “It’s terribly important to a representative to have that close touch.... A threat to that give-and-take is a threat to the very core of the democratic process.”
The process may be contentious, but it’s no excuse for toxic rhetoric, adds Hamilton, who – as a leader of the Iraq Study Group and of the 9/11 commission, forged consensus on tough issues. “I think we have to get back to a much more civil discussion in the country – and to recognize that this is a great big complicated country,” he says. “We shouldn’t fall out of our chairs because someone disagrees with us, but the manner in which you disagree makes an awful lot of difference in society.”