Restoring Civil Discourse

Who remembers Morton Downey Jr.?

For a time his antics seemed to be an anachronism. Now, however, his spirit seems to haunt all of us.

Partisanship has come to dominate our civic discourse, especially that in the blogosphere, and it seems to be getting worse. For example, the judiciary, once revered as impartial and scrupulously devoted to rationality, has been accused of partiality from both the right ("activist judges" "legislating from the bench") and the left (the Supreme Court's involvement in the 2000 election). To wit, the judge in the DeLay trial is removed because he donated to Democratic causes, and then his replacement is removed because he donated to Republican causes. In this manner, everyone in the country can be divided into one camp or the other, and their every action can be called into suspicion. The only people spared are those who have never publicly expressed any opinions one way or the other.

This development is not purely by accident -- much of the move has been engineered by those who feel partisanship is in their interest. But it has now spun out of control in such a way that it is damaging the underlying cohesiveness of the country. (or "hurting america" as John Stewart put it).
There has been scholarship in this area, but it is difficult to stay ahead of the trend. This review of Polarized Politics: Congress and the President in a Partisan Era (Edited by Jon R. Bond and Richard Fleisher. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2000, 226 pages) lays the challenges bare:

"One of the most obvious (but curiously understudied) developments in American national government in the last quarter-century has been the dramatic rise in partisanship and partisan polarization. A generation of political scientists raised in the hitherto prevailing view that American political parties are typically weak, ineffectual organizations, has found it difficult to explain ferociously partisan rhetoric within both chambers of Congress and between the White House and Capitol Hill. Moreover, while most scholars of American parties have consistently argued that the quality of political debate and governmental effectiveness would improve with stronger parties, the opposite view appears prevalent according to elite and mass perceptions of national politics today."

The discussion on the blogs focuses primarily on whether the most egregious examples come from the right or from the left. This is not a meaningful or productive conversation -- it can go on forever, and it only serves to deepen the divide. It may feel satisfying to read a blog that forcefully affirms one's positions and slams the other side, but in the long run, it achieves very little positive result and further harms the overall discourse.

Those of us in the conflict resolution field will tell you that people can fight about anything. Just ask any married couple what they fight about for an example. Also, contrary to popular opinion, fighting often does not move participants any closer to resolution -- in fact, some fighting may pull participants further away from agreement. That seems to be what's happening in our social dialogue right now.

There's no question but that the core of this social conflict resides in serious disagreements about complex issues: the future of our country and the world, human nature, religion, morality, sexuality, safety, etc. However, we're not talking about these underlying topics... we're instead debating positions, which are zero-sum, often irreconcilable, and constantly in flux. We need to work harder to keep the dialogue in our society productive, civil, and focused on the issues that really matter. Those who undermine it with insults and demonization of the other side, both on the right and on the left, should be marginalized. Not silenced, just ignored... and displaced by voices that have the restoration of an American consensus as their goal.

At the end of his career, Morton Downey Jr. expressed regret that he had taken things too far. Maybe if we can restore the civil discourse in our country we can put his spirit back to rest.

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