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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Clayton: Incivility rooted in resistance to compromise

By Cornell W. Clayton For The Spokesman-Review

Two weeks ago five people including the Republican House Whip Steve Scalise were shot by a deranged gunman as they practiced for the annual congressional baseball game in the nation’s capital. Shocked by the violence, a rare moment of bipartisanship erupted as leaders of both parties called for greater civility in our politics. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even sat down to a joint television interview to show they could be nice each other.

Similar calls to change the tone of our political discourse came after the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011, when a national center for civil discourse was even established. Such calls for greater civility are sincere and sensible. We should be more civil. They are also unlikely to succeed absent a more fundamental change in how we think about politics.

Over the past decade the Foley Institute at WSU has hosted a series of conferences and research programs focused on political polarization and incivility. Here is what we know.

First, political incivility and violence are not new. The presidential election of 1800 was probably the nastiest in history, leading to a duel in which Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. During 1820s the battle between Jacksonian Democrats and supporters of Adams was so bitter that the latter refused to even attend Jackson’s inauguration in 1828. During the 1860s members of Congress physically assaulted one another on the floor of the Senate, and half a million Americans, 2% of the entire population, died in a bloody civil war.

During the Gilded Age violent labor protests like the Haymarket riot led to deaths in American streets and President McKinley was killed by an assassin’s bullet. In the 1930s President Franklin Roosevelt was viciously attacked by opponents on both the left and the right. And during the 1960s, civil rights protesters were brutalized in the South, violent anti-Vietnam war demonstrations raged on college campuses, and three beloved leaders, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. It is hard to argue that politics today is less civil than during these previous periods.

We also know that political incivility is a symptom rather than a cause of political divisions. Past periods of incivility were periods when the nation was deeply polarized over major policy issues, issues such as slavery, industrialization, immigration and demographic change, or major social upheavals caused by movements for racial and sexual equality.

The nation is again divided, but it is a mistake to think of it simply in terms of hardening partisanship and decay in civil discourse. Yes our politics have become more tribal-like in nature and our discourse more coarse. But partisan polarization is the symptom of deeper substantive divides over policy. How should we respond to the economic transformations produced by globalization and automation of factories? What to do about the disappearing middle-class and growing inequalities in wealth and opportunity? How should we think about immigration in a country reliant on immigrant labor but concerned about the pace of demographic change?

These and other issues are not partisan creations but substantive challenges that confront the country. They produce partisan polarization, not the other way around. Nor can they be solved by simply refraining from incendiary partisan rhetoric – although that would certainly help.

Rather than fixating on the style of our political discourse we should focus more on resolving the substantive issues that divide us. The real problem today is not that political leaders don’t like one another or use intemperate rhetoric; it’s that too often they see politics in Manichean terms. They view politics as a struggle between good and evil, not the art of compromise and finding common ground. And voters encourage this view by seeing compromise as weakness and deriding candidates as “RINOs” or “establishment politicians” when they stray from their ideological dogmas.

In truth, the only principle that can sustain democracy is the principle of compromise and commitment to the common good. Those who insist on ideological purity and then bemoan incivility in politics fail to understand from where it comes. If we want a more productive and civil form of politics, we must see compromise as a virtue and reward those politicians who seek to find common ground rather than the those who stubbornly insist on ideological principle.

Such leadership is hard and it takes courage in polarized times when half the electorate feels the other side is not just wrong but doesn’t play by the rules. It requires leaders to not only be civil to each other but to empower the other side and give them voice in policymaking – especially when they don’t have to. It means not passing major legislation like health care reform on purely partisan votes – something both parties have done. It means adherence to institutional norms that empower the minority party, norms like the filibuster and not circumventing “regular procedure” by refusing to vote on presidential nominees or hold public hearings on major bills.

A more civil political discourse would be nice, but it will only come if we reorient our view of politics itself. Rather than joint television appearances, how about if Speaker Ryan and Nancy Pelosi commit to finding a bipartisan compromise to reform the health care system?

Cornell W. Clayton is the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.