Can a new 'national civility institute' calm political rancor?

George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton will oversee the National Institute for Civil Discourse in Arizona, sparked by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But history shows it faces an uphill battle.

By , Staff writer

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    Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York in 2008. Clinton and Bush are honorary chairmen of the new National Institute for Civil Discourse.
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With billionaires on the left and right funding media giants aimed at ostracizing political opponents, what's the hope for a new National Institute for Civil Discourse being established in honor of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords?

Arizona Board of Regents member Fred DuVal, a friend of Giffords, first thought of a civility institute during President Obama's speech following the Tucson shootings, which killed six and injured 13 others, including Rep. Giffords. Mr. DuVal told the New York Times over the weekend that its first charge – to define "best practices and corrosive practices" in debate – will be difficult to achieve.

“How do we nurture robustness on one hand and not in any way chill speech, and keep it in bounds that are not destructive to democracy?” he asked. “Will it change the nature of dialogue? That will be a tall order.”

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The Internet's polarized media machine, coupled with the Supreme Court's allowance of money as speech in political campaigns, have added a nasty wrinkle to American politics in recent years. In the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, Americans debated the role of rancor in politics and pointed out cases where they thought rhetoric went over the top.

To be sure, there's still debate about whether the nation's polarized political debate played any role at all in the mind of alleged shooter Jared Loughner.

The biggest hurdle for the civility institute, however, will likely be America's unique social contract. Born of conflict with a British king, the country remains at its core "individualistic, democratic, egalitarian, and hence basically anti-government and anti-authority," the late author Samuel Huntington wrote in "The Promise of Disharmony."

"The distinctive aspect of the American Creed is its anti-government character," he continued. "Opposition to power and suspicion of government as the most dangerous embodiment of power are the central themes of American political thought."

The Revolutionary Era pamphleteers were notable for their nasty tone, and the post-Colonial era press practiced the politics of personal destruction. Thomas Jefferson's Republican Richmond Examiner employed the vitriolic James Callender, who attacked President John Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

The early-1800s (when political duels fought with pistols were all the rage), the early 1900s, the 1960s, and the current era have all been notable for rhetorical excess and the violence it can spark. Such conflicts, many argue, are central – even critical – to the American experiment.

"Today, the general conservatism of this center-right country and especially the tea party impulse demand renewed seriousness about the creed's core skepticism about government," conservative columnist George Will wrote recently. "Modern liberalism's handicap is its unhappiness with this core."

Yet the county clearly took notice of heightened political rancor in the Tucson aftermath.

At President Obama's State of the Union address this year, the two major parties used mixed seating for the first time, and a CNN host rebuffed a guest who used the phrase "crosshairs" a few days after the shooting.

But in recent days, the clamor has ratcheted up again. Union protesters in Wisconsin have hoisted placards comparing Gov. Scott Walker, who is seeking to gut public service employee's collective bargaining rights, to Hitler and Middle Eastern dictators.

President Obama addressed rhetoric specifically in his post-Tucson speech.

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do,” Mr. Obama said, “it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, who will sit on the civility institute's board, believes the institute can play a role in calming partisan passions in order to have more relevant debates about the country's direction.

"I jumped at the chance," she wrote on her GretaWire blog. "I was flattered to be asked and eager to do whatever I can to help and serve. Count me in!!"

Moreover, former Congressman Jim Leach says civility and rhetoric aren't mutually exclusive.

"Civility is not simply or principally about manners," he wrote in a Monitor op-ed in January. "It doesn't require that vigorous advocacy be avoided.... 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."

The new institute will feature as honorary co-chairs former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and a host of other notables. It will serve as a center for debate, research, education, and policy about civility in public discourse.

Brint Milward, the director of the civility institute, told the New York Times that the institute would focus on political disagreements “from the grass roots all the way to the top.”

“In a great democracy, it’s important for people to hold fast to principles, but at the same time to understand where they might be able to compromise,” he said.

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