If President Obama has a theme for his last year in office, it may be this: To remind Americans to sustain civility in their political contests. That message could be his greatest gift to future generations – especially as the 2016 presidential campaign brings a new low in name-calling and a new high in yelling.
In his final State of the Union address in January, Mr. Obama’s strongest point came in a moment of humble remorse about his legacy: “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
Then in February, during a wistful speech to the Illinois legislature where he served as a state senator, he recalled that ideological differences had not prevented his fellow lawmakers from “assuming the best in one another and not the worst.”
He asked for a “modicum of civility” between political parties, adding: “The way we respect – or don’t – each other as citizens will determine whether or not the hard, frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government continues.”
Civility in public discourse is a basic resource of democracy, one that requires respectful listening to alternative views, not the mud pit of tweeted attacks on character or angry boos from partisan crowds on the campaign trail. It must be regularly replenished from the wellspring of civic values. It needs as much preservation as resources like energy, water, forests, or soil.
Obama is not alone in placing civility high on his agenda of what requires sustainability.
In the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address, Gov. Nikki Haley urged the GOP to change its angry tone and bullying tactics. “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That’s just not true,” Ms. Haley said. “Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”
At the University of Arizona, the National Institute for Civil Discourse runs workshops for state legislators from around the country on how to listen more and judge less in dealing with honest differences over issues. In a few states, lawmakers are trying harder not to echo the bitter barbs of the national campaigns. In Indiana, for example, a grass-roots campaign called “Community Civility Counts” has been endorsed by many elected leaders in hopes of creating greater collegiality. At Northeastern University in Boston, student debate over campus issues is now assisted by a director for “civic sustainability.”
These efforts aim to counter a rising trend among Americans to view those of another party “with growing suspicion and hostility,” according to a survey by two Emory University scholars. They refer to this mutual antagonism as “negative partisanship.”
When employed in word or action, civility is not just polite manners or a social lubricant. Nor does it always lead to compromise on an issue or the acceptance of an opponent’s position. Its strength lies in allowing a voice for minority views or a marginalized group, a situation everyone may be in someday. It allows old assumptions to be challenged by new arguments and evidence. It signals a care for one’s fellow citizens and equality under constitutional order.
If civility is maintained during the passage of a law, the law’s reality may be more acceptable to those on the losing side. And if a bill is not passed after a civil debate, that helps keep those who lost committed to democracy. Civility is ambivalent to the result of debate but essential for it. It softens the instinct to fight and win, allowing for empathy.
Civility is a virtue of civilization, to use a term that relies on the same root. It allows a politician to call out a lie without naming someone a liar. It treats opponents as worthy of heavenly thoughts rather than destined for “a special place in hell.” It opens a door for dialogue rather than shutting it with shouts and slurs.
“We can’t move forward if all we do is tear each other down,” Obama said in his Illinois talk.
Smear campaigns are nothing new in American politics. “In causes of passion, admit reason to govern,” wrote George Washington in his “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.” Yet the rancor has risen for many reasons, such as cable news “debates” and digital access to public forums by every voter. Rather than trading barb for barb, citizens must sustain civility as the infinite resource it is. Let’s hope candidates will follow.