Sometimes a minute is not enough
That seems to be the case to describe, assess or correct our current state of public and political affairs in this country. It certainly would take more than a minute to identify what’s wrong or broken in our political discourse and mechanisms of democracy today. And, of course, it would take more than a minute to describe how to “fix” this vitriol in politics and seeming abandonment of democratic principles and beliefs that have guided this country for two centuries.
But, heck, let me use this minute to try to do just that!
Although my introduction is broad and somewhat negative, perhaps democracy is not as broken as it seems. Indeed, our nation has survived for more than 200 years, won two world wars, has the strongest economy, impressive military might, and offers a quality of life like no other nation in the world. Also, it still functions under the broad rubric of representative democracy and free and open elections and rule of law. The United States is still the shining light of freedom and success for the world.
But it is not perfect. And in view of the harsh realities of economic uneasiness, inequities being recognized widely in our institutions and citizenry, navigating a catastrophic pandemic, and political divides (big and small) that separate us as Americans, it is sometimes hard to see us as that shining light these days.
That seems to be where we are today. We as an American people may be a bit lost. There is too much to unpack in that statement. But there is one concept that emerges above all in trying to seek a solution or a way forward in our current divisive political environment and social discord. That missing ingredient is civility.
What is civility?
Of course, there are many meanings. Let me offer this one or two. "Formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech … or civilized conduct or a polite act or expression” is how Merriam-Webster defines it. There is even an Institute for Civility in Government. They propose that we achieve civility when we disagree without disrespect, seek common ground for dialogue about differences, listen to one’s preconceptions and teach others to do the same. Civility matters even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. (See https://www.instituteforcivility.org/who-we-are/what-is-civility/.)
Why is this important to relate to our mission in the College of Public Affairs and Administration?
At heart our mission is “… to advance public discourse and influence public policy …” How can we make a difference in society if we stumble in advancing public discourse? A lack of civility only stifles, discourages and intimidates citizens from engaging and participating in dialogue to advance the public interest and policies. Taking a deep breath, listening to the other side, not jumping to conclusions, not derailing alternative views and looking for a common ground is not a bad thing, nor is it losing ground. Regardless of your political views and policy preferences “sorting things out” with the family at the kitchen table, the neighbors across the street, discussions at the school board or with legislators in local, state and federal offices, that it is what a democratic society does. It’s often sloppy and uneven and sometimes we lose - but sometimes we win. This has worked (somehow) for 200-plus years. Can’t we just hang in there for another 200?
Our College is dedicated to building civility into the process and institutions that constitute the public interest. Our values speak of critical thinking, integrity, honesty, professionalism, respect toward the public, civic engagement, serving the public at large, and considering broad and differentiated social impact. I am proud of those values, and I hope you are too. Living those values in your professional lives and as citizens will only reinforce the need for civility in public discourse and political exchange for our future generations.
Take that message, and that resolve, to your fellow citizens - because it is needed now more than ever.
Dr. Bob Smith
College of Public Affairs and Administration