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.

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.

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."

Legalized conflicts of interest

What we don't need is a chilling acceptance that money should be allowed to rule elections. The divisiveness and hyperbolic campaign rhetoric that marked this fall's midterm elections were fueled in part by a Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

By a single vote, the high court decided earlier this year that restrictions on campaign expenditures by corporations and unions violated constitutional protections of free speech.

With linguistic gyrations, this activist court changed the dynamics of future elections. In equating "money" with "speech" and "corporations" with "individuals," First Amendment protections were given for the expansion of legalized conflicts of interest in American politics.

The words in the Citizens United case seem civil. The effects are not. Our Founders did not envision a corporatist democracy. Abraham Lincoln did not speak of a government of, by, and for corporations.

Genial arm-twisting

Four-letter words may offend. But some of the politest conversations in public life can be the most uncivil.

As a congressman for 30 years, I recall how frequently a member's walk to the House floor would be interrupted by a lobbyist.

The lobbyist would cheerfully note how his group had supported the congressman in the previous election and hoped to in the next – but would then add that, by the way, there was a critical vote coming up and he hoped my colleague would understand the need to vote the "right" way. After asking politely about the spouse, the lobbyist would move on to another member.

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Conversations of this nature were quite genial. But the persuasion had little to do with the best interests of the country.

A civil brand of politics

What uncivil speech and less-civil money have to do with the coming years in American politics can be summarized in one question: "How can elected officials indebted to primary voters who abhor compromise and/or interest groups with debts to collect find common ground to advance the common good?"

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The short answer is that it could be next to impossible. The longer answer is that it is possible if all Americans work to support a brand of politics that reins in moneyed conflicts and promotes a more civil approach to public decisionmaking.

Jim Leach, a former 15-term Republican member of Congress, is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Leach was recently honored with the Search for Common Ground's "Common Ground Award" for outstanding accomplishments in conflict resolution, negotiation, community, and peace-building.

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