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Civility and the American Spirit

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Chautauqua 2011
1 Ames Avenue
Chautauqua, NY 14722
United States

July 4, 2011

It is a privilege to celebrate the Fourth of July at Chautauqua. This is the day of the year to take stock, to remind ourselves of what each of us has in common, what we owe prior generations, what lessons can be gleaned from our history, and what obligations that history requires we embrace in these fractious times.

In the 235 years since our founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to establish a union based on the precept that all men are created equal, Fourth of July addresses have been a barometer of our nation’s evolving challenges — from independence to emancipation to reconstruction to globalism; from women’s suffrage to civil rights; from public works and public welfare to concerns for governmental over-reaching; from reasons that propel us to war to concerns that cause us to secure peace.

This year is the sesquicentennial of the first battles of a Civil War in which 620,000 soldiers lost their lives marching to the drums of two contrasting senses of patriotism.

Nine years before the attack on Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass chose the Fourth of July to remind our young country that the “inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence” bequeathed by our founders was not shared by millions of enslaved Americans.

Four score and ten years after Douglas’s stirring oration — five months and three days before Pearl Harbor — Franklin Delano Roosevelt soberly warned that America could not survive as an “oasis of liberty” surrounded by a “desert of dictatorship.” Without 400,000 American patriots giving the ultimate sacrifice, most of Europe might today be under the totalitarian jackboot of the Third Reich and much of Asia could still be subject to Japanese imperialism.

As we take stock this Fourth of July, Americans face new challenges, some of our own making. We are at war in two Islamic countries and are dropping bombs in four others. Unemployment is disturbingly high. Income disparity is widening. Management of debt at various levels of government and in the family home has become the largest issue for many citizens. As a consequence, bonds of citizenship are increasingly fragile. Polarization between the political parties has deepened. So has the public’s distrust of the entire political establishment.

With tensions exacerbated by an epidemic of incivility in public speech and manners, the country is fragmenting into political factions that are difficult to reconcile.

History never provides precise parallels between one age and another, especially in this fast-changing world. Nonetheless, to the degree that human nature and human relationships are relative constants, experience indicates that all social organizations, from athletic teams to businesses to military units, operate better when there is mutual respect and a recognition that all parties rely on each other.

The goal of all organizations should be to have the whole become greater than the sum of its parts. A legislative body is no exception. When members of a group can’t work together, whether because of arcane rules or fashionable partisanship, weaknesses come to the fore. That is why there is such a difference between trust and distrust; the common good and shattered dreams. It is why words — the utterances of man — matter so much.

In coming months, our citizens and their representatives will have to make significant decisions about some of the most divisive issues of our time: levels of taxation and spending, social justice, energy policy, the future of the environment, public vs. corporate interests, and — above all — war and peace. These are subjects upon which unanimity is impossible. But social discord of a nature that could massively disserve citizen interests at home and our national interests abroad is not inevitable.

We can achieve social concord and still hold very different views if we simply unite in seeking common ground. Seldom, after all, is there only one proper path determinable and configurable by one individual or one political party. Public decision-making does not lend itself to certitude.

To be certain about something, a person generally knows a great deal or very little. The first condition is preferable to the second, but imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition. The best and brightest are not immune from great mistakes. That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why civility is such an important part of a civilized society.

Civility is not simply or principally about manners; it doesn’t mean that spirited advocacy is to be avoided. Indeed, argumentation is a social good; without it there is a tendency to dogmatism, or even tyranny.

Likewise, it is not necessarily inconsistent for citizens to hold very different views and, at the same time, to share a unity of purpose. The tradition of civil discourse symbolized by the New England town hall and the Virginia House of Burgesses was considered by our founders to be the key to holding government accountable.

Whether our unity breaks down in this era of heightened partisanship will depend less on the degree of differences than on the way we talk to one another and our capacity for mature, productive and responsible debate.

When historians eventually review the past several decades, the increasingly hostile and ad hominem tone of national politics will, I suspect, be much commented upon. It will not be viewed as near as polarizing as that which led to the Civil War. But as understandable as citizen angst may be today, the anger and name-calling that plague our political dialogues will be seen as unnecessarily damaging to our social cohesion.

We undercut an essential component of democracy when citizens and public figures label each other “fascist” and “communist” in manifest disregard of what these words mean, and in implicit disrespect of the sacrifices that millions of Americans made to thwart totalitarian states tied to these creeds.

Citizenship is hard because it is both a privilege and a responsibility. If all men are created equal, it follows that all have something to contribute to a public dialogue. Every citizen has a right not only to speak but to be heard.

The same, by analogy, is true of other nations. How we lead — or fail to lead — in an ever more interdependent global community will be directly related to how we comprehend our own history, values, and diversity of experiences, and how deeply we come to understand other peoples and their societies. If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and our way of life?

As we engage with terrorists half way around the Earth and look back at a century hallmarked by the first world wars in history and mankind’s vilest Holocaust; as we look at the senseless brutality of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and tribal animosities in Rwanda; and as we review the sporadic hate crimes in our own country, it is self-evident that suspicion, sometimes even fear, of the different is a weakness of the human condition.

One might ask what problem is there with a bit of public hyperbole. Plenty. The logic is the message. When a polarizing vocabulary of animus takes public hold and “prejudice” and its twin — “hate” — become commonly accepted, society becomes vulnerable to violence and social instability.

Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas. Other frameworks describe enemies.

If we fought a civil war to emancipate a people and preserve the union, if hundreds of thousands of citizen soldiers sacrificed their lives to defeat fascism, if tens of thousands gave the ultimate sacrifice to hold communism at bay, if our armed forces are currently engaged across the globe to constrain challenges to our liberties, isn’t it a citizen’s obligation to apply perspective to incendiary words that summon Americans to battle each other? There is, after all, a difference between supporting a particular spending or health care view and asserting that someone who prefers another approach or is a member of a different political party is an advocate of an “ism” of hate that encompasses gulags and concentration camps.

America is a mosaic of subcultures relating to factors like geography, immigration, and ethnicity, but we are also a unique national culture that embraces a melting pot tradition. When we fail to respect each other, as we did under slavery; as we did when we established internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II; as we did when we incarcerated labor leaders during World War I, we later regretted our narrowness and came to our senses as a people.

Citizenship is hard. It takes a commitment to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.

How we communicate with each other is of central significance. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify — or cloud — thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels of our nature, sometimes baser instincts.

When anger is stirred and the irrational fears of citizens are played upon, social cohesion and even public safety can be jeopardized. Conversely, healing language such as Lincoln’s plea in his Second Inaugural for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” can uplift and serve to unite a bitterly divided country.

The choice for leaders is whether to opt for unifying statesmanship or opportunistic partisanship.

Likewise, the challenge for citizens is to determine whom to support: those who seek unity by respecting diversity, or those who press debilitating cultural wars or extreme ideological agendas.

Civility is about more than governance. At issue is whether we perceive ourselves as belonging to a single American community with all its variety, and whether we look at people in other neighborhoods and other parts of the world as members of families seeking security and opportunity for their kin just as we do our own.

Whatever our backgrounds, in politics as in family, vigilance must be maintained to ensure that everyone understands each other. Vigorous advocacy should never be considered a thing to avoid. Argumentation is a social good. Indeed, it is a prerequisite to blocking tyranny and avoiding dogmatism. Rather than policing language, the goal should be to uplift the tenor and tone of debate and infuse it with historical and philosophical perspective.

The poet Walt Whitman once described America as an “athletic democracy.” What he meant was that 19th Century politics was rugged, with spirited debates about immigration, taxes, and slavery. Things could also get violent.

In 1804, a Vice President, Aaron Burr, shot dead our greatest Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, for suggesting that Burr was “despicable” in a duel that could be described as a brazen act of legalized incivility. Half a century later, Preston Brooks, a South Carolina Congressman, wandered over to the Senate chamber and caned unconscious Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts who had just held forth on the immorality of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its sanctioning of slavery in an expanding part of the union.

So, uncivil acts are nothing new. What is new in our social discourse are transformative changes in communications technology, debilitating changes in American politics, and the gravity of issues facing mankind.

In teaching at Princeton and Harvard upon leaving Congress, I developed for lecture purposes a large number of what I termed two-minute courses in governance. Let me cite several that point to some of the causes of American angst and division.

Political Science 101: The country over the past generation has been approximately one-third Democratic, one-third Republican, and one-third independent. Basic math tells us that one-half of one-third is one-sixth, so 16 2/3rds percent of the voters nominally control candidate selection in a typical election. But only one in four voters (often a fraction of this figure) participates in primaries where candidates are chosen. Thus, it is at most 1/4th x 1/6th — i.e., 1/24th of the electorate — that determines who the candidates of the principal parties will be. This 4 percent is socially quite conservative on the Republican side and actively liberal on the Democratic. Consequently, legislative bodies intended to represent a cross-section of the American public come principally to reflect its ideological and interest group edges. The pragmatic center-left and center-right of the American electorate which is the majority of the body politic are thus increasingly under-represented in legislative chambers.

Political Science 102: It is widely understood that in primaries for president, Republican candidates lean to the right, where the vote is, and then, if nominated, attempt to scoot toward the center in the general election; Democrats do the same, but begin from the left. What is less understood is that when it comes to Congress, the scoot to the center is seldom evident. Approximately 80% of the seats in the House of Representatives are either naturally or gerrymandered to be “safe” for one of the parties. About half of these safe seats are held by Republicans and half by Democrats. With few exceptions, safe-seat members must lean to the philosophical edges to prevail in primaries. Unlike Presidential contests, there is no incentive for most legislators to move to the center or embrace compromise legislative approaches — before or after elections. They understand that in the future their only serious electoral challenge is likely to come from within their party’s uncompromising base. Instead of politics being the art of compromise where a mutual commitment exists to advance the common good, legislatures inevitably become polarized. Pragmatic idealism gives way to ideological narrowness.

Psychology 101: An increasing number of issues in Congress are being projected as questions of morality rather than judgment. Advocates of one perspective assume that those with a different view are championing immorality. On the left, the problem is frequently evidenced by those who assume that increasing spending for almost any social cause is the only moral choice; on the right, by those who assume that the moral values of one or another group should be written into law to bind society as a whole.

Psychology 102: There is something about the human condition that wants to be allowed to make governing decisions at decentralized, socially cohesive levels where citizens may have impact. Much is written today about globalism but this century is also about “localism.” To adapt to a fast changing world, one must understand both of these phenomena — the fact, as Tip O’Neill repeatedly noted, that all politics is local and a corollary I propound that all local decisions are affected by international events. The angst of our times is correlated to the concerns of peoples everywhere that their livelihoods are increasingly buffeted by forces outside the control of family and community. While our political system is probably better adapted to providing citizen accountability than any other, our free market economic system is becoming increasingly concentrated and in many respects globalized. Indeed, with each passing year corporate interests become less aligned with the national interest.

Sports 101: A mid-20th Century sports journalist, Grantland Rice, famously observed that winning and losing are less important than how the game is played. The same is the case in politics. The temper and integrity of the political dialogue are more important for the cohesiveness of society than the outcome of any election. Yet a “winning-at-all-cost” ethic has taken hold in elections. Despite well-known incidents of misbehavior of a few celebrity athletes, the sports ethic is far higher than the political one. No high school or college will hire or maintain a coach who teaches teams not to respect their opponents. Yet the first thing a political adviser tells a candidate in a close election is to go negative.

While in politics there are few rules and no referees, in football a referee throws a flag when a player is off-side or clips. In basketball players are penalized for fouls; in politics candidates are rewarded for foul mouths. Several years ago I heard a University of Iowa women’s Hall of Fame Athletic Director recount witnessing a tennis match in which at a critical point there was an extraordinarily long volley with each player hitting powerful forehands and resourceful backhands, mixed with dashing net play. Finally the point was won; the audience stood in applause and the two players dropped their rackets and applauded each other. Where does this happen in politics?

Similarly, two years ago a young team from the Big 12 university in my home state, Iowa State University, went to play a vaunted, highly ranked Nebraska team in Lincoln. The Cyclones played above their talent level; the Cornhuskers below and the football gods caused a series of fumbles that resulted in the upset of the day. After the game in which all but a handful of fans wore Cornhusker red, the Nebraskans at the exit tunnel clapped in respect as the Cyclone players left the field. They paid tribute to good kids who competed hard and won fair. Is it asking too much for candidates and their supporters to do the same in politics?

Literature 101: In a set of four books published half a century ago called the Alexandria Quartet, the British author Lawrence Durrell describes urban life in Alexandria, the ancient Egyptian city on the Mediterranean, between the first and second World Wars. In the first book, Durrell spins a story from the perspective of one individual narrator. In each subsequent book, he describes the same events from the perspective of other narrators. While the surrounding events are the same, the stories are profoundly different, informed by each narrator’s life and circumstances. The moral is that to get a sense of reality it is illuminating to see things from more than one set of eyes. This observation can apply to interactions in a court room or town hall or on the international stage. American foreign policy, for instance, may seem reasonable from our perspective, but look very different to a European, African, Middle Easterner, or Asian.

Physics 101: Sir Isaac Newton set forth three laws of motion, the third of which stated that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; in shorthand, action equals reaction. Social chemistry can be quite different. In the kindergarten of politics, reaction can be greater than action. If, for instance, one were to malign a rival calling him a “bum” or “crazy” or worse, or describe the country in which the individual lives as “evil” or “backward,” the reaction might produce effects far greater than the precipitating words envisioned or intended.

Humanities 101: In the most profound political observation of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein suggested that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking. Yet 9/11 has taught that thinking must change not simply because of the destructive power of the big bomb, but because of the debilitating nature of terrorism. The more advanced and sophisticated an economy, the more vulnerable it is to terrorist acts. After all, a bomb placed next to a tall building does more damage than a similar bomb in a decentralized rural economy. And a cyber attack on our communication system or electric grid would cause greater potential harm than a similar effort in a developing country.

Humanities 102: In Western civilization’s most prophetic poem, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats suggests that “the centre cannot hold” when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Circumstances are different than when Yeats penned these lines in the wake of the senseless trench warfare that cost so many lives in World War I. But sadly his memorable words hold resonance for many today. Citizens of all philosophical persuasions are displaying increased disrespect for their fellow citizens and thus for modern day democratic governance. Much of the problem may flow from the fast-changing nature of our society, but part of the blame falls at the feet of politicians and their supporters who use inflammatory rhetoric to divide the country. Candidates may prevail in elections by tearing down, but if elected, they lack the good will needed to unite an angered citizenry. Negativity dispirits the soul of society just as it raises the temperature level of legislatures.

I have often assumed that in America process is our most important product, and that our Constitutional processes have generally propelled our history toward greater justice for all. Unfortunately, today, the problems of partisanship, what George Washington termed “factionalism,” have taken on a demoralizing dimension at a time when our position of world leadership requires us to restore the health of our political economy.

Management of debt at the federal, state, and local levels as well as within the typical family is the principal financial issue for most Americans. In modern times we have never had a lower tax burden relative to the Gross Domestic Product or higher levels of spending. Last year, for instance, the federal government raised approximately 15% of GDP in revenues and spent 25%. This is unsustainable. It is also dangerous. As Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently noted, our national debt may be the greatest threat to our national security.

Over the course of our history, the general practice has been to raise revenues to cover or partially cover the costs associated with the country going to war. Taxation was considered a form of shared national sacrifice for the common defense. However, for the first time in our history and perhaps the history of man, America’s wars in the 21st Century have been “de-financed” with tax cuts, with disproportionate benefits flowing to higher income citizens. The multi-trillion dollar costs of these 21st Century wars — the longest in our history — will thus have budget ramifications for decades to come.

Today’s political dilemma is self-evident. Modern conservatives too often are willing to embrace domestic spending restraint with inadequate attention to fairness; conversely, modern liberals too often demonstrate populist concern for fairness with inadequate attention to fiscal discipline. And, if this conundrum were not enough, political matters are becoming increasingly entangled with special interest groups whose powers have recently been bolstered by a corporatist Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United) that enhances corporate bullying in the political process.

It is no accident that just as the gap between rich and poor is widening in America, so is the political gap between the powerful and the common citizen.

Politeness may be an aspect of civil discourse but civility and polite words are not synonymous. Moneyed speech that carries strings may be the most uncivil speech of all. It eviscerates reasonableness in public dialogue and distorts the capacity of citizens and policy makers to weigh competing views in balanced ways.

Many good people enter politics only to find that the system causes the low road to become the one most travelled. Politicians routinely develop conflicts that do not technically rise to a legal standard of corruption because law and now judicial fiat have weakened that standard.

The new norm magnifies quasi-contractual relationships between interest groups and public officials. These implicit uncivil contracts can be coercive even if never discussed because corporatist power can so easily reward a candidate or inflict political retribution. On the assumption, for instance, that politicians have an instinct for political survival, a key component of which is a desire to raise campaign revenues and suppress opponent treasuries, why in a corporatist political system would a politician want to stand up to the drug companies or gambling interests or investment banks if corporate monies can quickly be shoveled into the political trenches of the opposition?

Speech is thus at issue from two perspectives. At one end, uncivil speech must be protected by the Court but filtered by the public and, at the other, corporate “speech” must not be allowed to stifle the voices of the people.

The issue isn’t just the right to speak freely but to be heard open-mindedly. A public official encumbered by campaign funding indebtednesses is prone to be insulated from the voices of the public. What is so disappointing about the new corporate empowerment is that it nationalizes interest group politics and entrenches political polarization at a time when a new attitudinal framework for public discourse is so needed.

One common sense alternative that fits a less conflicted political system and is innately used in certain settings by parents and teachers involves a theoretical approach to dialogue associated with a 20th Century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. Rather than argumentation aimed principally at exposing the weaknesses and incompatibility of other positions, Gadamer suggests that the goal should be to work to discover where there might be elements of truth or validity in other people’s stances.

Searching for the good in another’s ideas and implicitly in another person allows the prospect of arriving at a place neither side might have considered or reached alone. Such an approach to dialogue emphasizes listening and observing. It encourages creative action with the goal of avoiding irreconcilable conflict.

Over three decades as a legislator, for instance, I invariably found that when efforts were undertaken to listen to and, where possible, accommodate other perspectives, the effect was to bring people together. The wisdom of each side could be tapped and everyone could share credit for the end result. The seeking of common ground does not require parties to give up their values or go along with an un-compelling outcome. It does, however, require a degree of humility and a recognition that concerns for political advantage and personal ambition must be a secondary concern.

The problem in legislative politics today involves as much as anything the question of how to parse contrasting loyalties. Is a legislator’s first loyalty to his party’s caucus and to the political activists who fund or influence primary elections, or is it to the Congress itself and the American public as a whole? Is it the national interest or a parochial interest that matters the most? Each set of loyalties is important but there are times they are in conflict and at all times they must be prioritized.

The stakes have seldom been higher. The world is watching to see if America can pull together and make the necessary trade-offs between revenues and expenditures, between discipline and fairness.

Just as our political judgment is on trial, civilization itself is being challenged from two extremes: the looming prospect that proliferating weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed, and the reality that a new model of terrorism now exists for anyone, anywhere with a cause.

A potent army is thus a national security prerequisite. But military capacity alone cannot protect against all threats when respect between peoples of the world break down. The capacity of committed radicals to lash out and do harm, almost anywhere at any time, has grown exponentially over the last generation. So has the capacity for committed individuals to bring about uplifting change, whether in American technology or the Arab Spring.

In this context, I would like briefly to conclude by commenting on public service and suggest that it is a widely misunderstood concept. Public service is a precept not limited to receipt of a government pay check. After all, who is the greater public servant: a Senator or the discoverer of a cure for a disease; an ambassador or an entrepreneur who creates jobs; a Cabinet member or designer of a new generation of computers; a governmental policy-maker or the scholar, journalist, novelist or creative artist who advances understanding of the human condition; a public program director or the funder, employee or volunteer in a non-profit venture; a city council member or the plumber, electrician, and builder; today’s political activist or the educator who works to prepare tomorrow’s citizens?

Despite problems in our economy, the great freedom that is seldom thought about is the freedom to seek a variety of occupations in a variety of places in a variety of ways. It is this freedom in the most extensive job-changing culture in history that is so liberating and also so discombobulating about our times.

Over the last century America has led the world in almost every field of endeavor from the arts to education to business to government. But if we are frank with each other, we must acknowledge that our leadership is being challenged in all fields today, most particularly in politics where our political parties and political institutions demand greater citizen attention. That doesn’t mean that everyone should gravitate to public office. America is indeed stronger if the majority of the most able devote themselves to other occupations.

The classic example involves a scientist. In the early 1950s, Abba Eban, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, visited a Princeton resident and, on instructions from his government, offered him the Presidency of the fledgling state of Israel. Albert Einstein promptly declined, noting in an understatement that he knew little about nature, and a fib that he knew nothing of human nature. What he understood was that his contribution to society was more valuable in other pursuits.

For Einstein, resolving political squabbles would have been time misspent. History would have been disserved.

On the other hand, there are aspects of American politics where pragmatists and idealists have seldom been more in need. In the aftermath of a decade of war and economic stagnation, when the public sector made misjudgments and the private sector suffered ethical lapses, the national cry is for government at all levels to pull together for the common good.

Around the world people are asking whether America has peaked, whether we are on the precipice of social decay or the edge of renewed greatness. That question can only be answered by our actions.

Everyone is responsible. All are called upon. As Lincoln noted in words borrowed from Scripture, a house divided cannot stand.

Civilization requires civility.

Thank you.