Why a more polite political community would be a more
The strange metaphor "Washington is broken" became
more firmly embedded in common wisdom during the recent
debt-ceiling debate. But the debate revealed that Washington
isn't simply broken; it's also rude. As some renew calls
for reform to address government dysfunction, perhaps the best
place to start would be to ask public figures to be more
It is not just that it is discrediting and unseemly when
politicians are discourteous; civility also has an instrumental
value. A civil political community can be a more productive
U.S. President Barack Obama
described the debt-limit-negotiation process as
"messy." It was actually a lot worse. One senator
referred to opponents within his own party as
response was to call the senator a "troll." A
referred to the final deal that was reached as a
"sugar-coated Satan sandwich." One senator
asked another if he had "lost his mind" and another
called a leader from the opposing party
Civility is actually required to make democracy work properly.
Deliberation, reason-giving, compromise, and consensus-building
have been called democratic virtues. But they are all drawn
together by civility.
What should we make of the debt limit deal? Read one
First, civility encourages listening to what really matters. One
insult tucked into an otherwise well-crafted argument will almost
certainly ensure that only the insult is heard and responded to.
Undoubtedly, the senator who heard he had been called a troll did
not hear much else. Because the process of compromise involves
learning precisely what part of the other side's perspective
you can live with, anything that discourages listening reduces the
prospects for compromise. Of course, incivility reduces the
prospects for persuasion, as well. Whether the goal is achieving
compromise or winning a convert, the distractions of rudeness will
not be helpful. A civil argument is a more powerful argument.
Second, civility can ameliorate the fragmenting forces in our
society by encouraging respect and helping to build relationships.
It really is true that a "soft answer turns away wrath,"
but, beyond that, discourteous speech not only distracts from the
crux of arguments, it tends to polarize positions and discourage
the kind of consensus-building needed to make "Washington
work." In the context of lawmakers who work with each other
every day, uncivil language can make for a terrible working
relationship. While compromise requires a healthy understanding of
your opponent's views, consensus-building requires a healthy
relationship with your opponent.
Why the U.S. debt deal ignores the obvious: a
faltering economy. Learn morehere.
Third, civility will encourage an engagement of the broader
community. Average citizens don't understand filibusters,
cloture motions, or bipartisan committees, but they do "get
it" when they see politicians treating each other with
respect. Civility is immediately comprehensible to citizens and,
for that reason, effectively communicates the message that there is
respect for competing views in the political community. If
politicians don't at least respect each other and each
other's perspectives, it is likely that citizens will believe
that they will be disrespected, too, if they engage with the
In fairness, politics is not a tea party (so to speak),
Washington is certainly not the only uncivil capital city, and most
differences will not be completely bridged by simple courtesy. But
surely our politicians should take the obvious steps that could
reduce the dysfunctional brinkmanship that we've recently
The point is that some of what is broken in Washington can be
fairly easily fixed. Couldn't we at least get started ...
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