Can we restore civility to Washington policy debates?

In many policy debates, the discussion has shifted from criticizing ideas to questioning motives. Can policymakers find their way back to civility?

Julie Carr Smyth/AP/File
Supporters and opponents of president Donald Trump face off in front of the Ohio state house in Columbus, Ohio, in March.

It is all too common in Washington, D.C., for those of us born before the mid-1960s to lament the passing of the fabled “old ways” of doing business in the Capitol: when members of opposing political parties regularly socialized together in the evenings and then found ways to work together productively in the daytime. They muted and moderated their partisan passions so Congress could produce compromise legislation to address pressing problems. The political culture was never perfect, but it succeeded in passing civil rights legislation in the 1960s, environmental reforms in the 1970s, tax reform in the 1980s, and welfare reform in the 1990s. 

Those days now seem a distant memory. But while the toxification of politics in Washington in recent years has been impossible to miss and widely decried, people have paid less attention to the impact it has had on the actual business of making public policy. This deserves much greater scrutiny, because real-world policy outcomes are far more consequential than crude political theater, and turning the focus in that direction could be the first step to recovering our civic senses.

Prior to the 2000s, the policy process was usually characterized by a degree of mutual respect for differing views and positions. Even when those views were wildly discordant, there was a line that was almost never crossed: calling into question the moral integrity of one’s political opponents. You might have said that you thought an idea or proposal was flawed and then explained why. But you didn’t ascribe an opponent’s mistaken views to corruption or venality. To cross that line was to damage your own reputation and possibly risk your job. 

These days, that line is gone, and ad hominem attacks are par for the course. Now, it is common for policy advocates who hold opposing views on an issue to personally attack their opponents’ integrity, not just their ideas. In the policy arena, combatants now frequently act as if they are on the side of the angels and anyone not aligned with them must be smote, by whatever means, fair or foul. 

This is true on everything from health care, taxes, and regulation to foreign policy and national security. But in my corner of the world – technology and innovation policy – it has been particularly glaring on the issue of net neutrality.

For those who haven’t been following the issue closely for the last five years, net neutrality is the concept that internet service providers should treat all broadband data traffic alike. This may sound like a simple principle that should lend itself to a clear-cut policy solution. But in fact, it is much more complicated, with many network engineers making a compelling case that the internet’s performance would be enhanced if some bits of data could have priority over others. For example, it would be desirable to prioritize Skype calls over email, because you can’t have a crisp, clear call unless data arrives without delays or interruptions, whereas there is no measurable impact if some of the data in an email arrives 1/100th of a second after the rest. 

So, the key to good policy here, is to craft a regulatory regime that allows “good” prioritization, but bans “bad” prioritization, such as an ISP arbitrarily blocking data traffic that it doesn’t like for some reason. But for the most strident net neutrality activists, anyone advocating for this nuanced position must be, in the words of the advocacy group Free Press, a “Telco Industry Hack” who takes such a position only to please a funder. This is a confounding form of evasion. Rather than engage in a debate on the merits of the issue, it attempts to delegitimize opponents by blithely insinuating they have no research integrity or independence. No need to bother debating or even considering the substance of their arguments or the objective facts of the matter.

Climate policy is another case in point. Anyone not hewing to the strict environmentalist line is liable to be burned at the rhetorical stake. To be sure, there are a small number of highly vocal policy advocates who wrongly deny the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and manmade. It is almost impossible to have a productive debate with them. But there are others who readily acknowledge that climate change is real, manmade, and a grave problem, but also point out that not every assertion about the potential for a climate apocalypse is always true.

For example, Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, whom I know and have great respect for, has spent his career studying environmental science. He believes that “climate change is real and that human emissions of greenhouse gases risk justifying action, including a carbon tax.” But this conviction was not enough to spare him from withering attacks when his research led him to conclude “[t]here is scant evidence to indicate that hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought have become more frequent or intense in the U.S. or globally.”

For having the temerity to make such a suggestion, he was accused of being the worst-possible thing –a climate-change denier – and since being marked with that scarlet letter, he has been subjected to coordinated campaigns to discredit him and limit his access to the media. The liberal Center for American Progress pressured the popular website FiveThirtyEight to drop him as a contributor, and many others in the media piled on, rejecting any point Pielke tried to make. The mob had been aroused. 

The founders understood that the key to a vibrant republic was that citizens would be well-informed in part by a free and fair press, and that leaders and the populace together would abide by certain civic virtues. As William Penn once wrote, “In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.” In recent years, those virtues have seemed largely absent from the public square. 

But it is well within our power to rediscover them. That was clear most recently in the moments of grace and comity that followed the horrible shooting incident targeting Republican members of Congress who were practicing for an interparty baseball game. But even before that terrible shock to the system, it was clear when a bipartisan group of 47 freshman representatives, soon after taking office, pledged a commitment to civility in a series of speeches on the floor of the US House. This is something we can build on. Everyone involved in policymaking – politicians, the media, think tanks, scholars, and advocacy groups – should likewise commit a pledge of civility to abide by the principles of civil discourse and debate and agree that the coarsening of politics serves no one’s best interest. 

Robert D. Atkinson (@RobAtkinsonITIF) is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a leading science- and tech-policy think tank.

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