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."