Keynote Address - National Constitution Center

Video of Keynote

March 26, 2011

As part of "Can We Talk? A Conversation about Civility and Democracy in America" - A conference held at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It’s a pleasure to join you all today at the National Constitution Center.  I’m reminded that President Ronald Reagan—whose 100th birthday we mark this year—signed the “Constitutional Heritage Act” in 1988 that established this venerable institution, which was constantly championed by Mayor Ed Rendell.

One of the great modern rivalries in American politics was between President Reagan and the then Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. If Reagan believed that government was the problem—O’Neill, an unreconstructed New Dealer—believed it could be the solution.  Yet these two very different politicians—from rival parties and with opposing philosophies of government—were able to bridge the gulf between them, often with cordiality—and always with civility.

Reagan summed up their relationship when—after one of their famous St. Patrick Day lunches—he wrote in his diary: “Tip is a real pol…[he can] be a friend while politically trying to beat your head in.”

I find one story especially poignant.  Exactly 30 years ago this month, John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan as he was leaving a speaking engagement. The President was in much worse shape than was generally known when O’Neill went to his hospital bedside.  He took Reagan’s hands in his, and knelt in prayer. Tip then rose… kissed Reagan on the forehead…and said that he didn’t want to keep him from his rest.

Reflecting on that story, Chris Matthews—once a senior aide to O’Neill— wrote in his Post column this January: “these political giants recognized … their shared humanity, despite their stark differences of philosophy.”

It’s a recognition that seems to be lost to the incivility of so much of our public discourse…an incivility that many blame for the recent tragedy in Tucson.

I think they go too far. But none of us here would deny that recognition of our shared humanity has been lost when, this February, a Dallas County Commissioner disparages a speaker as “the chief mullah of Dallas County…”

None of us would deny that it’s been lost when—even after Tucson—an Indiana deputy attorney general tweets to Mother Jones magazine last month that police should use “live ammunition” against Wisconsin labor protestors…

And none of us would deny that it’s been lost when—on the campaign trail last fall—the current governor of Maine tells a group of fishermen that if he were elected he would tell President Obama “to go to hell.”

Addressing this incivility and promoting a healthier body politic is why we’ve all gathered here today.  But even as Americans from across the country, and across the political spectrum, are calling for more civility, many others argue that what we’re experiencing today is not the exception—but rather the rule—in American politics. It is… it has always been…and perhaps it must always be, a rough and tumble enterprise. Politics is certainly not for the “thin-skinned,” as President Obama told graduates last year.

To know that this is true, we need only look at the anti-Semitic, anti-FDR tirades of Father Coughlin, the Depression-era radio priest—who attracted 16 million listeners.

We need only recall that General George McClellan once called his commander-in-chief, President Lincoln, “Nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”  Subtlety was certainly not his strong suit...

We need only read an editorial that claimed, if Thomas Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”  Nuance obviously escaped this newspaper editor…

And we need only accurately remember the Founding Fathers themselves—whose lives and legacies we honor in this very building.  We might like to think of our Founding Fathers as models of civil discourse. 

But we know that some of what they wrote paints a very different picture. John Adams once described Alexander Hamilton as “The bastard brat of a Scotch peddler…devoid of every principle.” No one ever accused Adams of being understated… And James Monroe, more prosaically, labeled George Washington “insane.” Calling Barack Obama a “socialist” may seem tame in comparison—that is, until we take into account a variety of posters, and a massive billboard in Iowa, that compare him to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin.

So what, if anything, is different today?  Is incivility in our public dialogue and discourse more damaging than at other points in our history? Is Peggy Noonan on to something when she writes that it may be “a mistake not to see something new, something raw and bitter and dangerous, in the particular moment we’re in”?

I believe it’s not the presence of incivility in our public life that should disturb us, but rather, its ubiquity. Incivility is now so widespread—and so rewarded by so many powerful institutions—that it has upset our treasured balance of rights and responsibilities.  Specifically, how we use our right to free speech has been divorced from any effective sense of our civic responsibility.

We know that constitutional democracy depends on both protecting rights and promoting responsibilities. But while the right of free speech—even in its most repugnant terms—is legally enforceable, our responsibility to use that speech for productive public purposes isn’t. 

It’s why the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church could lawfully mount hateful, and hurtful, anti-gay protests outside the military funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, "As a nation we have chosen—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate." 

The legitimate concern today is that our public debate and discourse has become so hateful…so untruthful…so raw so much of time, that it’s all but impossible to see how the public good is or can be served.

It may be hard to see how the public good can be served—but it shouldn’t be impossible.  We need to remember those Founding Fathers.

At the end of the day—despite their polarizing rhetoric—they were able to work together to craft compromises and achieve very meaningful results.  It’s why Ben Franklin stated, when he announced his support of the Constitution, that, “The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.” It’s also why Franklin’s reply to Mrs. Powel—upon his leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787—is well worth our heeding in 2011: “Well, Doctor, what have we got…?” she asked.  Franklin replied, “A republic—if you can keep it.”

If you can keep it: For more than 200 years, we’ve kept it.  Loud, and messy, and contentious, we’ve kept it.  At times awful…at times amazing and inspiring, we’ve kept it.

But how confidently can we continue to keep it? 

My confidence depends on how effectively we address two huge challenges—challenges to recognizing our shared humanity in the midst of ongoing disagreement, including passionate protest. These two challenges—if met—will help ensure a civic dialogue that advances the common good while also respecting, indeed often appreciating, passionate voices of protest.

The first challenge is to reduce the excess of polarizing rhetoric in the body politic. 
And the second challenge is to revive a mindset conducive to compromise. 

Taken together, these two challenges highlight the importance of a sense of mutual respect and shared humanity to the future of our democracy.  They also reflect some of the scholarly work I’ve done with my frequent co-author, Dennis Thompson, who is with us today.

Reduce the excess of polarizing rhetoric in the body politic
Years ago, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked to define pornography. He famously answered, I don’t know how to define it—but I know it when I see it.

Something similar might be said about polarizing rhetoric: we know it when we hear it. And we’re hearing far too much of it these days.

Democracies are well served by robust and passionate public argument. The problem arises when polarizing rhetoric so dominates democratic politics that it shuts out constructive consideration of competing values. 

Polarizing rhetoric can be as psychologically tantalizing as the twists and turns in a Dan Brown novel—and often as entertaining. When it dominates public discourse, it drives fellow citizens into becoming disdainful enemies in rhetorical warfare. It also denigrates and degrades rather than respects those with opposing viewpoints—making it far more difficult to deliberate and to bridge reasonable differences.

To put it metaphorically, polarizing rhetoric is junk food for the body politic. Consumed in “supersize” quantities, it clogs the two major arteries that nourish constitutional democracy: the willingness to compromise, and the expression of mutual respect across differences.
When these two arteries are clogged, democracies do not pursue the kind of civic dialogue that simultaneously promotes a majority will, and listens to—and learns from— minority voices.

A strong regimen of preventive medicine would do our body politic the greatest good: The most powerful antidote to polarizing rhetoric is education in robust, reasoned, and respectful political debate. We need to teach students—the future leaders of our democracy—how to engage with one another over controversial issues. We must ensure that they are exposed to the widest spectrum of viewpoints—guaranteeing that they encounter beliefs that challenge their own. 

We must help them to understand and engage with the views of others without knee-jerk reliance on the crutch of character assassination. We must also help them to recognize polarizing rhetoric when they hear it…and appreciate its dangers before they habitually speak it.

In his speech after the tragedy in Tucson, President Obama eloquently stated why we must take responsibility for reducing incivility in the body politic. “Only a more civil and honest public discourse,” he noted, “can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.” There are discernible links between polarizing discourse, which dismisses and degrades all opposition, and the incapacity of our political system to address our most challenging problems.

Above all, the most insidiously destructive link is the disinclination to respect and—therefore—to compromise with one’s ideological opponents. This brings me to our second challenge.

Revive a Mindset Conducive to Compromise
If we want to ensure that the right to free speech is accompanied by a corresponding sense of civic responsibility, reducing excess polarization in our public discourse is not enough. We must also find ways to revive a political mindset that is conducive to compromise.

Why is compromise so difficult these days in American democracy?  After all, almost everyone recognizes that—just as politics is the art of the possible—compromise is the soul of democracy.  

A story about Harold Macmillan drives home for me what makes democratic compromise so difficult. 

During World War II, the future British Prime Minister was the British representative in Algeria. He was called upon to settle an increasingly bitter dispute between British and American officers in an Allied mess. The Americans were insisting that alcohol be served before meals…the British insisting that alcohol be served with their meals.  With the wisdom of Solomon, Macmillan announced that, “from now on—we will all drink before meals in deference to the Americans….and we will all drink during dinner in deference to the British.”  

Major compromises in democratic politics never leave all parties so satisfied…nor are they ever so simple.

To the contrary, major compromises—while giving all parties something that they want—require all to sacrifice something they value by making difficult—and often painful—concessions to an organized opposition. Compromise, therefore, typically leaves all parties dissatisfied. So, as essential as compromise is to democracy, it’s a steep uphill trudge.

In a recent article in Perspectives on Politics, entitled “Mindsets of Political Compromise,” Thompson and I argue that the ability to negotiate a successful compromise—particularly in an era of polarized politics—depends on cultivating a mindset that encourages politicians to adapt their principles and to respect their opponents. This mindset promotes attitudes and arguments that help us to work in common cause for the common good. 

The compromising mindset also focuses our attention on the most critical question for governing: Compared to the realistic alternatives, does this compromise promote the principles of both sides better than the status quo?  

Unfortunately, the massive incursion of campaigning into governing—the so-called “permanent campaign”—fuels a mindset that opposes compromise. The uncompromising mindset—very conducive to campaigning—encourages politicians to stand firmly on principles that appeal to their base… and it spawns mistrust of their opponents.  This mindset may help win elections—but it stymies effective governing. It radically biases the democratic process in favor of the status quo. And it blocks the democratic process from producing the public goods that citizens seek. 

I want to stress that the uncompromising mindset is not inherently bad, let alone evil.  It is important—perhaps even essential—to campaigning for office. The problem of the uncompromising mindset—like that of polarized rhetoric—is not its presence—but its ubiquity, which has upset the delicate balance of “campaigning” and “governing” in American politics. Like strangle weeds in a garden, campaigning has now grown out of its natural environment and threatens to choke out the very process of governing. 

The incursion of campaigning into governing is not necessarily greater than other factors that make compromise difficult—such as polarization and the 24/7 segmented media market. But the mindset associated with campaigning—with its overriding goal of producing a winner—reinforces and exacerbates all the other factors.    

Even sharp ideological differences—like those manifested by Reagan and O’Neill—pose far less of an obstacle to compromise in the absence of the continual pressures of campaigning. In 1983, not long after a big Democratic victory in the midterms, both Reagan and O’Neill backed a bipartisan solution to keep Social Security sustainable. And three years later, they together backed the most comprehensive tax reform bill in modern American history, the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The TRA was forged with the support of a bipartisan group, which included Democrats Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley…and Republican Bob Packwood. They were all partisans—but they were also prepared to take responsibility for governing.

Are there any glimmers of hope today? Let’s begin with last December, when President Obama, Congressional Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise to extend both the Bush-era tax cuts and unemployment benefits. Although the success of this compromise reflects the unusual landscape of a lame-duck Congress, the victory for both sides reinforces the importance of extending the compromising mindset beyond lame-duck sessions.

Another glimmer of hope: In the Senate, there’s a new “gang of six”—Democrats Warner, Durbin and Conrad…and Republicans Chambliss, Crapo and Coburn. Together, they’re working on a bipartisan debt reduction plan. They’re debating numbers, deadlines, and legislative methods. 

Instead of just engaging in a polarized “Point-Counterpoint,” they’re responsibly addressing some tough and critically important issues across the aisle. As the Post noted last month, “[they are] willing, in a time of ideological rigidity, to accept that painful trade-offs will be essential to putting the country on a sustainable fiscal path.”

Yes, there are glimmers of hope. But for efforts like these to multiply and usher in actual decisions that serve the public good, then we must find ways of shifting the balance in our democratic process toward governing and away from the permanent campaign. We cannot wait for the media and politicians to reform themselves.

Citizens can play an important role by resisting the siren’s song of polarizing rhetoric when we hear it…and by supporting political leaders whose rhetoric is respectful, and whose willingness to compromise is robust.

We also can practice “an economy of moral disagreement.”  When we argue about controversial issues, we can defend our views vigorously and passionately, while expressing respect for our adversaries, and not simply rejecting out of hand everything they stand for. By economizing on moral disagreement, we engender mutual respect across competing viewpoints and—most important—we make room for compromise. Without compromise, American democracy cannot survive—let alone thrive. 

The capacity for compromise—for cooperation across party lines for a publicly worthy goal—has long been one of our democracy’s greatest natural resources.  It’s a resource we’ve been squandering. Yet it’s a resource that we desperately need, to enhance both our rights to free speech and free elections… and our responsibilities to speak and govern for the public good.

If we do our best to reduce the excess of polarizing rhetoric in our public discourse…and to revive a mindset conducive to compromise, we will match our sacred rights to speak and to vote with an equally sacred set of responsibilities.

We can help ensure the future of our republic.

We can help engender a civic dialogue that simultaneously advances the common good and respects the voices of protest… 

And—most important—we can help restore the recognition of our shared humanity.

Restoring the recognition of our shared humanity certainly appeals to the “better angels of our nature…”

It reminds us that what unites us has always been greater than what divides us…

And it urges us to listen to each other with empathy…to speak to each other with respect…to appreciate one another as fellow members of a great American family…and to cherish not only our rights, but also our responsibilities.

Thank you.

© Amy Gutmann, 2011