Civil Discourse and the Clash of Ideas

by PSA Staff | November 5th, 2012 | |Subscribe

Lee Hamilton is the Co-chair of PSA’s Advisory Board and Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. You can find the original article here.

Civil Discourse and the Clash of Ideas

The election of 2012 has called attention to how difficult it is for  Americans to talk reasonably with one another about public policy  challenges. Our civic dialogue — how we sort through issues and reason  with one another — is too often lamentable.

We live in a politically divided country. Congress, which ought to  serve as the forum where politicians of diverse views find common  ground, is instead riven by ideological disagreements. There’s no real  discourse, just the two parties hammering at each other in a  mean-spirited, strident tone. Small wonder the public holds Congress in  such low esteem.

It seems impossible to change, but it’s not. Ordinary citizens—you  and I—have it in our power to put our political dialogue back on track.

The first step is to understand that in a politically and socially  diverse country, with two houses of Congress and a president required to  pass legislation, compromise isn’t a luxury. It is almost always a  necessity. Too few politicians seem to grasp this.

So if we want things to improve, if we don’t like intense  partisanship and political game-playing, then we must choose officials  with an instinct for collaboration. And we, as their constituents, have  to give them room to craft legislation with broad appeal.

The budget, taxes, entitlements, education, immigration — on all  these issues there is room for each side to accommodate the other. But  to make progress on these matters, it will take political leadership of  the highest order: leaders who are fair, open-minded, and committed  above all else to bringing people together through discussion, debate  and compromise.

Let me be clear: We should expect disagreement in our politics.  Vigorous debate has been a constant in American history, and let’s hope  it always will be. Controversy and argument are natural parts of a  working democracy. Our Founders understood this, as a way for multiple  views to be aired and possible solutions weighed. Competition for power  lies at the heart of our system, and an intense struggle for votes that  is marked by the clash of ideas should be encouraged, not feared.

But healthy debate requires other ingredients, too: Respect for one’s  adversary. Tolerance of different beliefs and perspectives.  Graciousness. A fundamental respect for facts. The humility to recognize  that we might be wrong and the integrity to admit it.

When the next political attack ad appears on your television screen,  keep these virtues in mind. Because if we don’t like the tone of our  politics, you and I are the only ones who can change it. We must make it  clear to office-seekers and to our political friends that we do not  like inflammatory name-calling or constant attacks on an opponent’s  motivation. Let it be known we are tired of excessive partisanship —  that we want a genuine dialogue that searches for common ground and  solutions.

Knowing how to disagree without obstructing progress should be a  bedrock skill for officeholders. They must know how to state their case  cogently, in a manner that is substantive and factual, and does not  attack the motivation or patriotism of those with whom they disagree.  The more this kind of behavior becomes the norm, the better our  political system will work and the stronger our nation will be. Because  the reverse is true, too: a politics that consists of debasing,  demeaning, or attempting to silence the people with whom we disagree is a  warning sign of an ailing democracy.

Plenty of powerful groups and interests in this country try to  manipulate public opinion. But special interests don’t have the final  say on who gets elected. You, the average citizen, have the one thing  every candidate values most highly: a vote.

Use it, and use it wisely. Help America turn away from a coarse,  surly politics that dwells on differences and places party loyalty ahead  of national progress. Choose leaders of a civil temperament who listen  attentively to a wide range of views, who see value in bridging the  partisan divide, and who will pragmatically address our nation’s  challenges.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana  University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34  years.

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