Current Issue

June 2, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 15


Uncivil society

Jim Leach ’64 leads an effort to restore respectful discourse to our national life, but it’s tough going

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the June 2, 2010, issue

Charlie Niebergall/AP Images
Hardly anyone would call Richard Nixon a uniter, but in 1969 the new president tried to extend the open hand. At the height of the Vietnam War, during a time of riots and widespread social unrest, Nixon used his first inaugural address to plead for a return to civility in public discourse, saying, “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.”  

If one weakness of today’s politics is unrelenting shouting, that is not a sin that afflicts Jim Leach ’64, a former 15-term Iowa congressman and now head of the National Endow­ment for the Humanities. “Mild-mannered” is a term that seems to have been created to describe Leach. He speaks calmly, often in little more than a whisper, and shows an eagerness to listen that is not always common in career politicians. His office in Washington’s refurbished Post Office building is filled with painted wooden cutouts of famous iconoclasts, among them Rep. Jeannette Rankin, the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both world wars; Henry Wallace, vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, who lost his place on the ticket to Harry Truman after disagreeing with high-ranking members of his party; and Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk nation.    

As a congressman, Leach refused to accept PAC money or out-of-state contributions and was so adamantly opposed to negative campaigning that during his 2006 re-election campaign (which he lost), he called his opponent to apologize for mailings sent out by the national GOP and threatened to leave the Republican caucus if they continued. After leaving office, he took turns teaching at Princeton and at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This is a man whose official House portrait shows him wearing a sweater vest under his tweed jacket. In mien and manner, he screams the word “professorial” — or he would, were it not so hard to imagine Jim Leach screaming anything.

SO IT IS NOT SURPRISING that Leach has chosen to address the growing problem of incivility in our public life. As NEH chairman, he has embarked upon a 50-state “American Civility Tour” meant to raise awareness of the issue around the nation. He also made it the theme of his address at Alexander Hall on Alumni Day in February, when he accepted the Woodrow Wilson Award, Princeton’s top award for an undergraduate alum.

“The times,” Leach declared, “require a new social compact rooted in mutual respect and citizen trust.” Civility, however, is more than simple politeness, although such courtesies are certainly a part of it. “At its core,” Leach explained, “civility requires respectful engagement: a willingness to consider other views and place them in the context of history and life experiences.”

Recent incidents of public incivility abound. Right-wing talk radio hosts tar President Barack Obama as a “socialist.” Some liberal bloggers label former Vice President Dick Cheney a “fascist.” When the president appeared before a joint session of Congress last fall and said that his health-care plan would not provide benefits to illegal aliens, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted out, “You lie!” The House slapped Wilson with a resolution of disapproval, but he also reportedly raked in campaign donations from those who applauded his misbehavior.  

By historical standards, this is not much. We live in a country in which the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr 1772, killed the former treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, and where half a century later, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks clubbed Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with a gold-tipped cane on the Senate floor. Newspapers from the beginning of the republic were sharp-elbowed and nakedly partisan, without bothering to drape it with the “We report, you decide” mantle. But a more recent period of relative comity seems to have ended.

Behavior such as Joe Wilson’s would have been inconceivable a decade ago, says former Oklahoma Rep. Mickey Edwards, a Republican, who is now vice president of the Aspen Institute and a visiting lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School. “We would never have had someone say, ‘You lie!’ during a presidential speech. Not because it shows a lack of deference to the president, but because at the time, the president was speaking as a guest of the institution. It violated the rules of decorum.”

This decline in decorum, which Leach also witnessed firsthand, prompted him to speak up about it when he took over at the NEH. Incendiary words matter, he insists, because calling someone a “socialist” or a “fascist” is not an argument, but a label that serves as a substitute for thought. The words we use, Leach explained in his Alumni Day address, “clarify — or cloud — thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels of our nature, sometimes baser instincts. When coupled with character assassination, polarizing rhetoric can exacerbate intolerance and perhaps impel violence.”

But, as Leach observes, incivility also takes a more insidious form in the tactical refusal to engage those with differing opinions in a search for the common good. The day after Congress passed health-care reform, for example, Arizona Sen. John McCain declared that the Republicans would not cooperate with the Democrats on any more legislation during this term, no matter what the issue. Both John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leaders in the House and Senate, have described their caucus’s strategy as simply denying the Democrats a victory.

In theory, at least, civility should not be incompatible with partisanship. People ought to be able to argue vigorously without being uncivil about it. That is one of the reasons why Congress adheres to an elaborately deferential code of conduct in which members call each other “my good friend from Utah,” “the distinguished member from Ohio,” and the like.

Although such superficial niceties still prevail, they mask deepening problems. “Partisanship that refuses to see anything in another’s thought processes that might have some bearing on his own is very foolish,” Leach says in an interview. “If the Republican argument is ‘no victory’ [for Demo­crats], you have a system that becomes closer to nihilism but not quite, but certainly much closer to a European political system.” Such zero-sum calculations — if you win, I lose — are more routine in parliamentary systems, but those systems also give a willful minority much less power than minority-party members have in the United States — such as the filibuster or the hold a single senator can put on a nomination — to impede the majority from getting its way.  

Today, the two parties seem to exist in different worlds. Each Senate office, for example, receives its own ­closed-circuit television feed of the proceedings on the floor. Republicans receive a feed from the Republican caucus that contains information about what is being debated and, in some situations, how the members are expected to vote. Democrats receive something similar from their caucus. In this sense, members of different parties literally are not even watching the same debate.  

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4 Responses to Uncivil society

Stuart G. Hibben '48 Says:

2010-06-03 09:21:16

An excellent article on a timely subject. This is the best piece from Bernstein that I have yet read in PAW.

Roger T. Cole '55 Says:

2010-06-03 10:24:32

The current course of the Obama administration requires straightforward rebuttal to what is clearly a socialistic thrust. This path was not a part of his campaign platform and amounts to deception.

Dennis Williams *80 Says:

2010-06-17 15:02:15

A minor comment on parliamentary systems: If there are 2 parties, minority rights may be less than in the U.S., but with more parties, very small minority parties are required to form a government and then get a voice much stronger than their constituency warrants (examples - maybe not the best or even current, as politics is not my field - Greens in Germany and ultra-right in Israel). A potentially divisive question: does the emphasis on diversity contribute to the splintering of the idea of citizenship? I read an article that stated that Joe Biden once said that America differed from other societies because we were a nation of laws and thus, anyone could become an American regardless of ethnic origin in a way that was not true of becoming, e.g., a Frenchman. Diversity labels us all as "something-Americans," with the emphasis on the "something" and "American" as an afterthought.

Tom Grant '64 Says:

2010-07-06 09:26:16

A well-written piece from a balanced perspective. Jim Leach provides a much-needed lesson on the value of civility in political discourse -- and the destructive consequences of its opposite, which sadly has become the norm.
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CURRENT ISSUE: June 2, 2010
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Video: Preaching respect
Hear Jim Leach '64's address on "Civility in a Fractured Society," delivered as part of this year's Alumni Day events.