I very much support the creation of institutions and movements that support civil discourse — and applaud the announcement of this new National Center for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona which Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush will co-chair.
The problem though is that it’s important to realize that the crowd they assemble to be stakeholders in these efforts can’t just be the warm and fuzzy, genteel types. The announced board includes Tom Daschle, Madeleine Albright, Jim Kolbe, Greta Van Susteren, Ken Duberstein, Trey Grayson, and Sandra Day O’Connor.
I like all of these folks and know most of them fairly well — but they are not the cutting edge of political discourse in America — and they are already so civil that having them doesn’t demonstrate a pathway to curbing incivility.
Only Greta brings a little sizzle because of her relationship with Fox, where a lot of the torpedoes of uncivil discourse are launched by Roger Ailes, Bill Sammon, Glen Beck and others as part of the business model of the network.
Others I think who are nationally important and would give this important institution a less stuffy feel that captures the dynamism of contemporary discourse would include Ann Coulter, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Robert Gallucci, Keith Ellison (in ex officio status given that he is serving in Congress now – but a leading Muslim American is important), Rahm Emanuel, Trevor Potter, Wes Boyd or Justin Ruben of MoveOn, David Brock, Fareed Zakaria, Grover Norquist, Arianna Huffington, Joshua Micah Marshall, Katrina vanden Heuvel, George Soros, David Boaz, Sidney Blumenthal, John Podesta, David Fenton, James Glassman, Chuck Hagel, Aaron Schock (another Member of Congress who seems cool with responsible political conflict), and more.
I might even try folks like Liz Cheney and David Addington who has recently become one of the top team at the Heritage Foundation and whose approach to national security infrastructure building is about as antithetical to my views as I can imagine. But if Addington felt strongly that civility in discourse was important, it would help decrease the too high temperatures of political debate.
We don’t need bland, whitebread politics, and America wouldn’t politically work as it is supposed to unless people, interests, media, bloggers, and institutions didn’t pursue their interests vigorously in a competitive framework.
But responsible conflict, responsible debate, responsible discourse need to be a valued, supported part of the political commons — and I think that some of the folks I have mentioned have demonstrated an ability to be both severe and balanced. Yes, even Ann Coulter. I admire her decision to speak to and “embrace” gay Republicans.
She has set an example that even the most strident and pugnacious of us can change and learn something.
So, kudos to Bill Clinton and G.H.W. Bush, as well as other movers behind the scenes in launching this Center — but friendly piece of advice: you need to bring in some of the symbolically less civil or not always civil or downright uncivil as stakeholders in the enterprise to dent public attitudes.
— Steve Clemons