What's Civility Worth?

For me, going home for the holidays every year is a reminder of the limits of rational political discourse. It's not that I descend into arguments with my family -- which is, on the whole, much more conservative than I am -- it's that we've long since learned to not even bother. We're coming from such different places, armed with totally different sets of facts, that arguing is pointless. They say that the health-care reform bill is too expensive. I point out that Republicans' proposed repeals will actually increase the deficit. They say that's not true. And we're back to square one. Best for all of us if we just tuck into the mashed potatoes and make friendly small talk.

A few weeks after I declined to have a heated political debate with my relatives, Jared Loughner opened fire on a Democratic member of Congress, a federal judge, and others in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. In the wake of the shootings, seemingly everyone issued a plea for more civility and rationality in our political conversations. President Barack Obama, in his speech about the shooting, called for "a more civil and honest public discourse." We can assume he was talking about other folks -- the president has never been much of a hothead himself.

However, few people seemed to have an idea, let alone a shared idea, of what such a discourse is actually supposed to sound like. Some pundits offered examples: In a column at The New Republic, E.J. Dionne called on the Republicans to stop using inflammatory and misleading phrases like "death panels." Others, like the Prospect's own Paul Waldman, said that overly dramatic language wasn't the issue; we should all be focused on eliminating rhetoric that dismisses opposing views as completely illegitimate. But my sense is that when most folks call for civility, they are demanding a "fair fight" that relies on research and employs logic -- a rational, fact-based debate.

The problem is that an argument can be both civil and rational and still not be fair. Sure, it's more civil for the GOP to publish misleading policy papers than it is for Sarah Palin to affix crosshairs to a map of congressional districts. Is that what the folks calling for civility really want? As Paul Krugman pointed out in a recent column, "All [Republicans] ever needed or wanted were some numbers and charts to wave at the press, fooling some people into believing that we're having some kind of rational discussion. We aren't."

I agree with him. We're coming at the conversation not just with a separate set of beliefs but with entirely contradictory data points -- my family's Christmas dinner writ large. To some folks in this country, it's completely rational to refer to the president as a socialist. The disconnect plays out in smaller ways, too. After Obama's speech in Tucson, some bloggers and their readers on the right convinced themselves that the audience was given an "applause" prompt from the JumboTron, despite all evidence that the term "[APPLAUSE]" was part of the closed-captioning -- a description, not an instruction. Examples like these make me think that it's not, as Krugman wrote in another recent column, that the political conversation is poisoned with violent rhetoric. It's that it's not a conversation at all.

There is, clearly, a dispute over "facts." How can we learn to get along if we can't even agree on a basis for debate? I don't have an easy answer -- and this is why I don't believe that civilizing our political discourse is going to have much of an impact on political outcomes. But I am, apparently, in the minority. In a Washington Post-ABC News survey taken after the shooting, 55 percent of respondents said they were optimistic that Republicans and Democrats would be able to work together. That's an 8 percentage-point increase from an ABC News-Yahoo! News poll taken just before the massacre.

I think this is because when most Americans think of Congress, they still think of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style process. They don't understand that civility won't help debate, because they don't understand that "debate" is just politicians taking turns issuing sound bites meant for members of their own base, not as persuasive points attempting to sway the other party. The halls of Congress are not a place where two sides look at an agreed-upon set of facts and then debate the best way forward. Much of the debate is about the facts themselves.

Like it or not, facts do exist. The question that's worth exploring is not how can we make our political discourse more civil. It's how can we make sure that it is a productive conversation rooted in those facts. Because agreeing to disagree might be a way to survive an awkward Christmas dinner, but it's no way to run a country.

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