When campaign politics turn vicious, what voters can do

As the 2012 campaigns settle into a pattern of personal attacks, voters need not be passive, or even resigned. The can demand civility.

AP Photo
Lynn Armstrong Coffin and Eric Papalini, not shown, of PunchingPoliticians.com hold puppets of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama boxing before a campaign rally at the Ringling Museum of Art Sept. 20.

For voters tempted to ignore the 2012 election because of too many passionate, personal attacks by candidates, here’s a bit of advice – and it comes from someone who saw it first in American politics:

“In causes of passion, admit reason to govern,” wrote George Washington in his “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.”

Oddly enough, the first president’s call for civil discourse in public life has been echoed by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – despite their occasional attacks on each other’s character.

Public debate, said President Obama in 2009, must be done with “friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.” And earlier this year, Mr. Romney said, “Poisonous language ... has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind.”

Obama rose to national prominence in 2004 with his appeal for civility. In his 2008 campaign, he promised to change the capital’s caustic tone, or what Bill Clinton called “the politics of personal destruction.”

But on Thursday, Obama said the “most important” lesson he has learned as president is that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.”

His pessimism is echoed by polls. A large majority of Americans say they see a rise in general rudeness and incivility in society. This can have serious effects. Last year, a British research study found that people’s feelings about their community are influenced more by the level of civility than the level of crime. Mutual respect is needed as a glue to help society govern itself, the study stated.

Civility in political campaigns and in legislating isn’t required simply because people should be nice. It helps grease relationships between opposing parties, which can then lead to bipartisan solutions. It does this by allowing lawmakers to remain open to being challenged on their most fundamental beliefs without fear of being ridiculed or turned into a caricature. They can disagree agreeably.

In recent years, a number of private groups have taken up the task of promoting civility. Johns Hopkins University has a “Civility Institute.” Last year, the University of Arizona opened the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

In Texas, the Institute for Civility in Government, run by Presbyterian ministers Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, offers training sessions based on their book, “Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square: 10 Rules That Work.”

They say that many people, when confronted with incivility, take the first step of trying to remain civil themselves. Like George Washington, they find that civility requires “patience, grace, and strength of character.”

Many members of Congress have tried to act as models of civility or have led groups of lawmakers on bipartisan “civility” retreats to discuss tough issues. Many lawmakers eventually quit their jobs out of a sense of failure to alter the capital’s slugfest of character-based politics.

The latest attempt in Congress to change the tone is a “civility caucus” in the House. It was formed in 2005 by Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia and Emanuel Cleaver II (D) of Missouri. The two often conduct civil debates on the House floor to serve as a model. The caucus has only 14 members out of a possible 435. By comparison, the “wine caucus” has more than 200 members.

A passivity toward civility in Washington needs an active response from voters, not a spirit of resignation. As Obama stated last year in his State of the Union message, “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.”

Voters need not sit out this election or ignore the campaign because of all the personal attacks. Something can be done, starting with a demand for civility.

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