Politics of a shooting prompts search for civility

The letter, to three members of Congress, reads like a eulogy to civility in U.S. politics, its message underscored by the nearly complete absence of mourners.

The letter, to three members of Congress, reads like a eulogy to civility in U.S. politics, its message underscored by the nearly complete absence of mourners.

"You three were alone in pledging to be civil," writes the founder of a campaign that last year asked every senator, representative and all the nation's governors to sign a promise to treat their adversaries with simple respect. "I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar."

The Jan. 3 letter disbanding the Civility Project — led by a conservative Republican public relations executive and a liberal Democratic lobbyist — went out five days before the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others spurred soul-searching about a decline in the nation's political discourse and its potential dangers.

There is, as yet, no evidence that the gunman was motivated by a vicious turn in American politics.

Still, the storm of anti-rhetoric rhetoric unleashed by the rampage raises a troubling question: If Americans are so concerned that civility has been bled from politics, why has it taken this tragedy for a message some have long tried to deliver to arrive?

Maybe it's because, in one man's unhinged act, we fear the recognition of something larger — and decidedly darker — about ourselves.

Americans are not born knowing how to work out disagreements through politics. The proof is watching children fight over a shovel in a sandbox.

"It's something that we learn and the case of the shooter is evidence that, to some degree, we're not learning well enough what it means to participate in politics," says Danielle Allen, author of "Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown vs. Board of Education."

It's tempting to see the shooting as disconnected from anything larger. But Allen sees a moment at hand when that lesson — the need to hammer out solutions through institutions and dialogue with adversaries, rather than working for their destruction — is suddenly clarified.

"When you have a lot of people who think that something has changed, then something has changed and it's important to understand what that is," says Allen, a political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

That change was clear to Atlanta public relations executive Mark DeMoss long before the nation became fixated on the tragedy in Tucson. In early 2009, DeMoss — a conservative Republican whose clients are mostly Christian religious organizations — decided to do something about what he saw as a depressing drop-off in civility in politics.

He called on friend and political opposite Lanny J. Davis, a well-known liberal Democrat and lobbyist who worked as an adviser to President Bill Clinton. Together they launched the Civility Project, a campaign to awaken Americans to the need for common decency in politics.

The effort was capped by a letter the pair sent last May to all 100 members of the Senate, 435 members of the House of Representatives and 50 state governors. It asked them to sign a 32-word pledge to treat their opponents with basic respect. DeMoss is a realist. He expected to collect 50 to 75, a jumping-off point to push others to join.

He got lots of comments from people who heard about the effort, many thanking him for taking it on. But he says about half the e-mails he received on the subject were critical, some full of vitriol accusing him of trying to limit free speech or force people to surrender their personal convictions. And just three members of Congress — House Republicans Frank Wolf of Virginia and Sue Myrick of North Carolina and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who votes with the Democrats — signed on.

"There's a liberal left that, in my view, behaves in a pretty ugly way pretty often, and there's a conservative element of the right that does the same thing," DeMoss says. "It's amazing to me that politicians who look closely at polls can ignore the polling and research on this question because all of this shows that voters are fed up with it."

DeMoss is right. In a survey of Americans across the spectrum last year by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., nearly 9 in 10 said if they could write the rules for political behavior, they would eliminate insults and personal attacks on opponents. About 7 in 10 said Americans "should be ashamed of the way elected officials acted" during the debate over health care.

But those findings may miss the obvious — fiery political speech is a proven means of capturing and holding attention. Diana Mutz, a professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted experiments showing voters videos of actors playing politicians who deliver the same message calmly and then in attack-mode. Many say the latter is distasteful and does little to sway views. But again and again, the attack scenes are the ones they prefer to watch and that they remember.

"I like to equate it to rubbernecking when there's an accident by the side of the road. We're not sick people. We don't want people to die. But when something's happening, we pay attention," Mutz says.

Mutz calls it theater. To her, the most revealing thing about the debate the Tucson shootings has touched off isn't that people are troubled by uncivil politics. It's that politicians and pundits would use the tragedy as an opportunity to once again air their own heated views.

"The media and politicians are trying to sell you the idea that this guy is a right-wing nut job moved to action by Fox News or me or Sarah Palin," conservative talk show host Glenn Beck said on his broadcast Monday.

Over on MSNBC, liberal talk-show host Keith Olbermann said that, so far, the impact of the shootings in "uniting this country in a commitment to abandon the rhetoric of violence" was "almost negligible."

It is a reminder that we live in an age of intense and non-stop media, where the omnipresence of the Internet and the voracious appetite to fill the air time on cable television leave many Americans feeling like they live under a permanent cloud of political invective. The rhetoric itself may not be worse than it used to be, but there is seemingly no way to ignore it.

"The Internet and technology have made it much easier for incendiary language to be heard by hundreds of thousands or millions, as opposed to being more localized," says Tom Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University, which looks at changes in the ways Americans are connected to others in their communities.

Sanders notes that technological connections overlay a society in which more people have become loners, in many ways disconnected from others. At the same time, more of us exist in media echo chambers, watching television or frequenting websites that reinforce our views. The result: Extreme outliers are connected in a continuous loop of invective. In another age, they might never have known one another existed.

Mike Godwin, a well-known expert on Internet law, once sarcastically observed that the longer online discussions go on, it becomes more and more likely that they will deteriorate into rants about Hitler or the Nazis. It became known as Godwin's Law.

The reality, of course, is that not all political discussion is destined to be uncivil and that not all uncivil acts are evidence of a deterioration in our politics. Maybe the shooting in Tucson is an isolated act of a madman.

"I think we search for a rational cause when there aren't any," said Morris Fiorina, co-author of "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America" and a political scientist at Stanford University.

But to DeMoss, who launched the campaign for civility and is reluctant to draw a line between the issue and the Giffords shooting, it does not matter. The fact remains, he says, that our politics is poisonous and needs to be changed.

And Allen, the political philosopher, says it does not end there. The tragedy in Arizona and the consternation it has caused does say something about us and our politics, even if we're still figuring it out. She points out how differently Americans have responded to the shooting of a congresswoman and others outside a supermarket, compared to past rampages at American schools and workplaces.

"We have no idea why he (the gunman) did what he did," Allen says. "But the fact that ... he connects his situation to politics triggers in us, I think, a recognition that something may well be awry with lots of people's connection to politics — and that's scary."


Adam Geller, a national writer for The Associated Press based in New York, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.

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