Penn hosts Silfen Forum on the polarization of public debate and discourse in America

On the heels of a polarizing national debate about health care in the United States, Penn President Amy Gutmann convened University faculty members, a former congressman and one of television’s most recognized correspondents for a discussion on inflammatory rhetoric in American public debate and political culture.

Penn hosted its second annual David and Lyn Silfen Forum on April 13, titled “The Polarized Polis: Public Debate in the United States,” in the Agora of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Penn Professors Kathleen Hall Jamieson, John DiIulio and John Jackson, Jr. were joined by chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former Congressman Jim Leach (R-IA), and NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell in a robust exchange about the apparent deficit in mutual respect and surplus in political polarization of American public debate and political culture in our times.

“The omnipresence and almost narcotic presence of television … makes a difference,” said Leach, who is in the midst of a 50-state “civility tour” as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, adding that “the great American middle is hardly represented” today in the media.

Citing polarizing speech by cable news pundits, bloggers and even on the floor of the U.S. Congress, Gutmann and panelists asked—and attempted to answer—whether Americans are indeed becoming more extreme in their views, or whether media coverage has become more rooted in punditry and opinion. If public debate is indeed in trouble, from a democratic perspective, who or what is to blame? And is a certain amount of incivility in public debate actually necessary?

Gutmann noted that cable television hosts such as Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly saw their audience numbers grow in the first quarter of 2010, while the audience for traditional media sources, such as newspapers, continues to decline. “At the same time we have an increased interest in the often titillating faux pas of public figures, we have less regard for what is actually true—and these would seem to be interconnected,” she said.

David and Lyn Silfen are the parents of Jane Silfen, C'07, and Adam Silfen, C'98, WG'03. Longtime supporters of undergraduate education, they previously funded two Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professorships, the Silfen Student Study Center, a term professorship and the David and Lyn Silfen Fund in the School of Arts and Sciences to support the Pilot Curriculum.

Originally published on April 13, 2010