Civility falls away at election time. But pink-faced shrieking and online takedowns aren’t seasonal. Incivility is endemic and corrosive to the American experience.
An annual study by KRC Research documents the uptick. “Not only is civility getting worse, but the majority of Americans (70 percent) agree that incivility in America has risen to crisis levels.”
Coarse politics repels good souls from running for office, from school board to Congress. The fallout — the oafish example of women and men of poor character — is tangible.
“Political incivility may be approaching the ‘new normal,’” the report reads. “Americans still seem resigned to the idea that incivility is just a part of the political process and that political disagreements between Democrats and Republicans can no longer be discussed civilly.”
Civility is hitched to respect, although not everyone deserves it. Human rights presume that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It’s why civility isn’t passive in the face of injustice.
Washington’s former Secretary of State, Sam Reed, is emblematic of public service and civil dialogue. During his 12 years in statewide office, Reed never wavered from doing the right thing, including shepherding the contentious Gregore-Rossi recount in 2004.
To perpetuate Reed’s example, his friends and colleagues created an endowment at Washington State University for the “Sam Reed Distinguished Professorship in Civic Education and Public Civility.” If supporters raise $115,000 between now and the end of December, the professorship will be filled by the fall of 2014. She or he will work statewide in partnership with the Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service and WSU’s College of Arts and Sciences.
The link to civic education is critical. It helps to know that the Sixth Amendment is about the right to a speedy public trial or that talk about education as government’s paramount duty flows from Article IX of Washington’s state Constitution. And it’s embroidered by history, by an understanding of context and the Federalist Papers (the government shutdown gave expression to Federalist 51 and the menace of political factions.)
A grounding in civics can translate into public civility by ensuring debate is predicated on facts, not reimagined history. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, it’s not simply what we know, but what we know that isn’t so. History is foundational.
Reed’s career illustrates that virtue and get-things-done politics are not mutually exclusive. Civility isn’t tilting at human nature, or tamping down debate animated by conviction. It’s about making whole the promise of the United States, that Americans can agree to disagree.
Sam Reed can’t be cloned, but he can be emulated. We will be a richer society if we do.