Sticks and stones: the case for civility in American political discourse

Instead of dogmatism and hysterical clamor, we need more of the 'Shields and Brooks' kind of civility in our public discourse in America.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Rick Santorum makes a point as Mitt Romney listens during a Republican presidential debate Feb. 22 in Mesa, Ariz. Columnist John Hughes argues that for a 'more perfect union,' America needs more civil discourse.

A Friday night ritual for me is catching “Shields and Brooks” on the PBS NewsHour. They offer intelligent analysis and opinion, and though they may disagree with each other on issues, they do so with good-natured civility.

Instead of dogmatism and hysterical clamor, we need more of this kind of discourse in America.

I was delighted when Mark Shields and David Brooks were recognized recently by Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, which bestowed on them its “Prize for Civility in Public Life.”

I was impressed by the words of the college’s president, James Mullen, who hopes that the award and the college’s focus on civility “might empower young people across the nation; that we might help them – help all of us – find the faith and courage to engage in the public arena with civility and respect.”

On air, Mr. Shields said he was grateful for this attempt to “lower the toxicity level in American public life and dialogue.” With another dash of decorum, Shields reminded viewers that he and Mr. Brooks were the beneficiaries of standards laid down by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the early architects of the PBS news hour.

Both newscasters were inquiring journalistic interrogators on and off the air, but as Shields declared, they “demanded and insisted upon a standard of civility in dialogue which permeates this whole show and has been the gold standard.”

Would that such a standard had been evident in the slashing debates and attack TV ads that have characterized our presidential election campaign so far. Republican presidential candidates have called each other names like “fake” and “narcissistic” and “unprincipled flip-flopper,” and the president a “snob” and “job killer” – and those are the mildest. President Obama, instead of remembering that he is president of all the people, has dismissed Republicans as responsible for almost every tribulation of his presidency.

American democracy is a beacon to millions around the world, but the character of the political system that gets us there must leave many onlookers agape. The presidential election goes on too long and is awash in too much money. The Republican debates have been too numerous, and not a clarification of policy, but of TV sound-bites, posturing, and party fratricide. Let us hope for more civility when the president and would-be president engage in debate after this endless run-up.

Despite the “gold standard” of the PBS NewsHour and fine reporting by some quality news organizations, my own profession of journalism does not emerge with totally clean hands.

Cable-TV has an enormous appetite for sensation and conflict. Some cable networks have reveled in endless repetition of the gaffes and insults and angry exchanges between the Republican candidates on the debating stage. Some reporters have triggered verbal explosions in response to “gotcha” questions. Heated exchanges may make the headlines but not clarify platforms and policies.

CBS newsman Mike Wallace, in his book “Heat and Light,” deplores the focus on “opinion, gossip and scandal” in the 24-hour news cycle. With the advent of cable, he says, news has become “yammer, yammer, yammer. It’s infotainment. It used to be a race to the top. To a certain degree, news today is a race to the bottom.”

Civil though he traditionally was, Jim Lehrer has sometimes deplored journalistic arrogance. In one tongue-in-cheek commencement address he declared:

“Only the journalists of America are smart enough to know what to do in the economy, health care, and Supreme Court appointments. Don’t believe politicians and government officials…They never tell the truth. We, the journalists…are experts in motives because ours are so pure.”

Whether it be presidents, chieftains of commerce and industry, politicians, journalists, pundits, late-night comedians, or just folks around the dinner table, the discourse would be better with civility.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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