Civility in Modern Political Life

The civility of our political discourse was not helped the other night when South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson called President

The civility of our political discourse was not helped the other night when South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson called President Obama a liar on the floor of the Congress. Fortunately, his outburst was followed by his rapid apology and the President’s quick acceptance of that apology. I would like to think that the follow-up may be evidence of a consensus that Representative Wilson crossed a boundary that should be maintained.

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As I watched the TV talking heads dissect the event, one resident wizard made the point that the atmosphere in the Congress was relatively tame compared to Prime Minister’s questions in the British Parliament. While that is true, it sort of misses the point. In Britain the head of government is the Prime Minister, but the head of state is the Queen. In Israel and many other Parliamentary democracies the head of state is the President and the head of government is the Prime Minister. In the United States the President is both the head of government and the head of state. This means that President Obama’s role is not simply to manage the federal bureaucracy, but to represent and symbolize the nation as well. He not only cuts the budget, he is expected to cut ribbons too. In our democracy there is no King to symbolize the nation’s history or culture. The President plays that role. He is both Prime Minister and King.

I should mention that this does not make me a monarchist, or President Obama a monarch. Last week I was quoted making the same point in a wonderful article by the Associated Press writer Jocelyn Noveck on heckling in Congress, and I have received a pile of e-mails explaining that America has no king. That is clear, but the function of head of state and head of government is often split in most political systems, just not in ours.
This combination can be confusing, and at times Presidents have tried to take advantage of the dual role by arguing that those who disagree with their policy positions are unpatriotic. That is of course completely false. A President’s policies are fair game. In fact, it’s also OK to call the President a liar. It’s just probably not something you should scream at him while he is speaking to a joint session of Congress in front of 30 million TV viewers.

This has been a nasty political summer as evidenced by disruptions at Town Hall Meetings on health policy and the absurd attack on the President for advising school kids to stay in school, work hard and do their homework.  While many of us long for civility and respect in our political debates, it’s important to remember that American political history has not always been characterized by mild discussion and broad consensus. Back in 1804, at the start of the republic, Alexander Hamilton died after being shot by Aaron Burr- possibly a low point for political civility in the early days of our poltical system.  In the mid-19th century a complete breakdown of our political process led to the Civil War.  According to the web site of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, political dialogue in the House was particularly contentious in the years leading up to that horrific war, In fact,

“The most infamous floor brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives erupted as Members debated Kansas’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution late into the night of February 5-6 [1858]. Shortly after 1 A.M., Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt exchanged insults, then blows….More than 50 Members joined the melee.” 
The 20th century was no picnic either. More than a few of us remember the discord at the -1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago as well as the many moments in the 1960’s when orderly and symbolic civil disobedience descended into disruption and violence.

In a world made smaller by low-cost information and communication technology and made more dangerous by constant advances in the technology of destruction, civility and peaceful methods of dispute resolution become more and more important.  I write this on September 11, 2009 and have been reminded all day of the presence of evil in the world and the importance of civility and the rule of law in modern life. In his famous June 1963 American University speech on the path to world peace, John Kennedy spoke about the need for nations to develop safe ways to resolve sharp differences and live in peace. JFK urged tolerance and civility when he said:

“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

Health care, climate change, the economy and issues of war and peace dominate national policy debates in our nation’s capital. There is a great deal of political power and a boatload of money at stake for our Representatives in Washington, their constituents back home and powerful stakeholders. The presence of these powerful forces and vested interests make it even more important that the discussion be civil and that all parties be respectful of each other. Despite the attention he has garnered from his shout at the President, I am certain that Representative Wilson wishes he hadn’t pushed the “send” button the other night. My hope is that his fifteen minutes of national fame does not inspire others to mimic his unfortunate outburst.

Civility in Modern Political Life