Exploring why political dialogue often turns ugly

Photo by Tim Schoon.

Whoever wins the next presidential election, there’s likely to be lots of metaphorical blood spilled between now and November 2012 as candidates, pundits, and parties continue to escalate the war of words—sometimes inadvertently blowing themselves up in the process.

Such is the state of political discourse in 21st century America, where Twitter, Facebook, and the 24-hour news cycle provide everyone with an opinion and access to a keyboard the chance to gain instant fame, or infamy.

To help put things in perspective and perhaps provide a fresh way forward, where remarks by candidates and political observers might generate more light and less heat, the University of Iowa Public Policy Center, in collaboration with many other units on campus, is hosting a two-day symposium this fall that poses as question: “Conflict and Civility in Political Discourse: Where Is the Line?”

Scheduled for Nov. 9-10 on the UI campus, the event will feature discussions, film screenings, and political cartoon exhibitions about the role civil discourse plays in the development of policy. The discussions will include historical perspectives on civil discourse in the United States, rhetorical and cultural perspectives, the role of women and of social media, the views of state and federal politicians, and the implications of the Citizens United Supreme Court case on political dialogue. (Details at ppc.uiowa.edu/political-discourse.)

fyi asked Peter Damiano, director of the Public Policy Center, to talk a bit about the state of political discourse today and what he hopes the symposium will accomplish.

“Polls have indicated that the public is frustrated; people see the country face many serious challenges while perceiving that our policymakers collectively appear more interested in beating the other side than trying to solve problems,” Damiano says. “This symposium is designed to showcase some of the reasons why this is occurring, how it compares to other periods in U.S. history, and what we may be able to do to move forward collectively. With the upcoming Iowa Caucuses, this seemed the ideal time to attract attention to this important issue.”

This is a bit obvious, perhaps, but why is the state of political discourse an important topic today?
While it may seem obvious to some, there are those who would say that the topic of civility in political discourse is naïve and/or counterproductive, that compromise is weakness and that the only goal should be to beat the opponent. The counter to that, of course, is that compromise and negotiation produce better policy. That the only way we can move the country forward and overcome complex problems such as high unemployment or high federal deficits is by working together. This can only happen if we are willing to have reasonable political discourse and respect for those with differing opinions.

Are things really that bad? Haven’t politics always involved a little mudslinging?
There is no question that political discourse has been worse at times in our history. While we no longer solve our political differences with duels, like Burr and Hamilton, the general trend in our political discourse of late is very disconcerting to many. The influence of money and special interests has appeared to become worse. Also, there is concern that redistricting policies in many states have led to safer congressional districts, and thus candidates that represent the extremes of both parties, with fewer in the political middle. This makes compromise and even conversation across the aisle more difficult.

More information about the UI Public Policy Center is available at ppc.uiowa.edu.

Civil discourse should not be confused with politeness, however. The subtitle for this symposium is “Where Is the Line?” During the civil rights movement, many would have argued that strong discourse was needed to battle an entrenched establishment. Similarly today, many in the tea party movement, and now the Occupy Wall Street effort, argue that they must speak boldly to be heard above establishment voices of both political parties. Political change, however, often comes from those who can ultimately work together and understand where gridlock can be overcome.

Who do you think would benefit from attending this symposium and why?
Almost everyone should be able to find a speaker or panel that will interest them, from the impact of the media, both social and traditional, to women in politics, to what we can learn from a review of history on the events today. One of our three keynote speakers is also likely to be of interest; Jim Leach, our former congressman and current chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has a passion for this topic. Jean Bethke Elshtain is a professor at the University of Chicago and a Guggenheim fellow who explores the relationship between politics and ethics. And Mike Gousha is a former television journalist and Marquette law faculty who will provide insight into the recent activities in Wisconsin and the impact on discourse.

What role does higher education play in addressing this trend toward political incivility?
One of the primary missions of higher education is to provide our students and the community with the opportunity to learn from our faculty and each other through civil, serious, and sometimes heated debates on important issues. We educate about the scientific method, to question and explore, as we try to discern the truth. Truth is a combination of facts, values, and timing. Universities should be a place where facts can be explored while differences in values can be understood. This should lead to a more educated and hopefully a more concerned public and electorate that understands why others have differing opinions, and respects those opinions when we don’t see eye to eye. A better understanding of those who disagree with us provides the opportunity to create better public policy.