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The State of Our Union's Political Civility: Many Are Hungry for More

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Does "the American people" want President Obama to make a case for political civility in his State of the Union address?

Of course not. Despite the too-common political rhetoric, "American people" is a plural, not a singular, noun. There's no point of even slight controversy about which all 300 million of us stand as one. And even if I restate the question with the proper plural-noun grammar – "Do the American people...?" – I am not going to pretend that there's an unarguable answer for a majority.

But there is some evidence that a lot of us would not mind another nod from the president in the direction of civil discourse.

Back in November, with the stink of some of the election language still fresh, about half of those responding to a national poll by the Public Religion Research Institute said they thought "the lack of civil or respectful discourse in our political system" was a very serious problem. Another third considered the lack of civility as a "somewhat serious problem."

In a national Zogby poll conducted last March, about half of those surveyed said they thought the level of political civility was going down. And that was before the convulsive reaction to the Arizona massacre. Obama used his speech at the memorial service in Tucson to make a case for civil political discourse:

"And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."

Another eloquent defense of and argument for civility was offered a few days later by Sen. John McCain in The Washington Post. You should read the whole thing, but I'll excerpt a nugget:

We Americans have different opinions on how best to serve that noble purpose. We need not pretend otherwise or be timid in our advocacy of the means we believe will achieve it. But we should be mindful as we argue about our differences that so much more unites than divides us....

I disagree with many of the president's policies, but I believe he is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals. And I reject accusations that Americans who vigorously oppose his policies are less intelligent, compassionate or just than those who support them.
And then there is the symbolic gesture now offered by some members of Congress – an offer to break the longtime tradition of seating by party for this State of the Union speech. "Symbolic" is not necessarily a synonym for "meaningless," as can be quickly demonstrated by the American flag, a cross, a peace sign or the vote by the House of Representatives last week to repeal the health care reform law passed by the previous session of Congress.

Whether a symbol has meaning depends on what actions people are wiling to take that can be tied to that symbol. So we'll not know for a while whether mixed seating for this speech is indicative of any long-term changes.

It would, perhaps, be useful for the president to offer a definition of civility in this speech: Civility does not require weakness of principle or language. It's not code for compromise or surrender. It's not mind control. It's self-censorship only in the same way that not taking a whiz in your neighbor's living room is self-censorship.

Political civility is nothing more – or less – than a continuing acknowledgment that the motives and patriotism of your opponent are at least as pure as your own. That the other side is not occupied by Nazis, Communists, socialists, fascists or people otherwise determined to destroy our nation. That the half of the nation, more or less, that voted against your side during one of the recent elections is not un-American, Satanic or unworthy. That the sharpest and most pointed criticism of positions should not leak over into an attack on the person.

(Unless, of course, you have conclusive evidence that it should. Civility should not blind us to the fact that there have been Nazis, Communists, socialists, fascists or people otherwise determined to destroy our nation. You'd better have courtroom-ready goods, however, before you roll out that kind of accusation.)

But is this just what my friends in religious denominations call a "preacher war"? That's an argument that seems as deep and bitter and corrosive as you can imagine if you talk to the folks in the battle – generally members of the clergy. But when you get to the pews, the same topic won't get you a loud yawn.

So the odd poll aside, do many Americans really care enough about the nastiness to want to do anything about it? I asked Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Leach was a Republican congressman from Iowa for 15 terms, from 1997 to 2007, generally considered a "moderate" when such a thing was more common. He was later part of a relatively heavyweight bipartisan group that seriously considered backing a third party presidential candidate in early 2008. (And he still thinks there may really be room for a third party if neither the Democrats nor GOP move back to what Leach considers the center.) He eventually spoke in support of Barack Obama – at the Democratic convention.

So you can think of him as either a remarkable political boundary spanner or someone with uncertain principles. You'll find both evaluations out there. For my purposes, though, he may be the best known and most widely traveled partisan for political civility over the past year or so.

Leach launched his "American Civility Tour" in November 2009 and is still working his way through all 50 states. That may give him an unusually good perspective about what "the American people" think about political civility and the lack. Based on what he's heard, a call for civility will find a receptive audience.

"The hunger out there for greater civility is very large," he said.

He blames much of the lack of civility on a primary election system that gives vastly disproportionate power to the party extremes, and on a system of campaign financing that allows those extremes to dominate the public discourse.

The largely unrepresented middle is where the hunger for civility can be most easily identified, Leach said.

He considered Obama's Tucson memorial address "one of the most unusual and unusually effective speeches delivered by a president." He was impressed at how it delivered personal comfort and public encouragement "in a moment not only of grief but embarrassment."

He suggested that Obama return to the civility theme in the State of the Union speech. And if he does, Leach said, Obama can have an impact on our discourse.

"I would hope that he follows the logical model that he set up in Tucson -- of not blaming anyone, yet pointing out that we've got to come together," Leach said. "There is no greater pulpit in the history of man than the State of the Union address. He has Congress at his feet and the American public tuned in."

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To me it seems that the new 'buzz word' = Civility equates to - Censorship of speech by anybody that does not agree with what Democrats want.

January 26 2011 at 3:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If the Republican Party members would support most or all of the Obama's administration policies to tame the deficits, create employments, and invest in human capital and infrastructure, the overall U.S. economy will rapidly turn around. I cannot fathom the rationale behind the GOP unyielding stance in opposition to the principles that will make America THE number 1 economy in the world, especially in the wake of the current unprecedented growth of the Chinese economy. As America continues to play the politic of opposition, India may step up to become THE number 2 economic power second only to China. It will be very tormenting for America to play the game of catch-up in the world stage. The American politicians should read the writing on the wall before it is too late.

January 26 2011 at 9:16 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I think the most civil thing to do at this point is stop the hateful rhetoric being bounced around. It's okay to disagree with political agendas, etc. but to start lying about a certain group or a specific person, sprading hateful comments about them on either the internet, TV or radio, some comments definitely bordering on outright bigotry - THAT is what needs to be stopped. We are all American citizens and want what is best for our country. You may not agree with what I agree but we can debate issues as adults and may find a lot of common ground with one another if just a regular conversation without yelling and threats can be accomplished. I'm not taking any sides here as both sides have thrown out Nazi entirely too much. Enough of that. Nothing, NOTHING will ever be as bad as what Hitler and his minions did.

January 25 2011 at 5:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

civil speech seems reasonable,, but one sided civil speech is not,, what and only what i want to hear from this state of the union,,is,, we are going to cut the debt,, no more spending,,repeal health care,, stop enabling illegals,, America and Americans above others, loyalty to the USA, and a pledge from each and every member,and from this president, if they break pledge they leave office,,

January 25 2011 at 1:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I have been observing this topic for many years, and have concluded that when one side calls for more civility, it is an indication that they sense they have been out flanked in the debate and wish the other side to shut up and politely listen for a change.

January 24 2011 at 2:42 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Neither party represents the moderate majority.

January 24 2011 at 12:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"Divisiveness" has been the keyword of this administration. I want a President who is for ALL the people of America, not just a few special interest groups and certain ethnicities. I want a uniter, not a divider.

January 24 2011 at 11:07 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

If a president and party try to have government take control the people have the right to speak up. A fair debate would be nice where the press does not show bias. Where if you express an idea that is different then the author you do not get censored or civilogue. When government takes over healthcare, auto industries, finicial indusrty, and epa control enrgy would leave some one to think this is socialism. Socialism the public rather then the private control of business and natural resources. The definition of socialism, does this sound like what is happening in america? I should have the right to call somnething what it is. Not censored or civilogue because this does not agree with the author.

January 24 2011 at 8:19 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

How about someone making the case for writers learning basic grammar. The word "people" in your first sentence is plural. Doesn't saying "Does the people" offend your ear? Yes, there is a singular sense of the word people, but this is not it.

January 23 2011 at 11:45 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to lswain2's comment

Um. Did you read the next paragraph? I was using the intentional grammar error to make a rhetorical point: "Despite the too-common political rhetoric, "American people" is a plural, not a singular, noun. There's no point of even slight controversy about which all 300 million of us stand as one."

January 24 2011 at 10:21 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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