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When Does Civility Win the Day in Politics?

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People ask me from time to time if the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership is making any headway in the tough slog against the excessive polarization of politics.

The answer may be not much if you look at the big picture of fighting by pundits, yelling at congressmen and running campaigns that produce more trash and trashing than the highest point in Virginia Beach — the politically inspired Mount Trashmore.

The answer is yes if you count a relatively few people at a time striving to help people work and talk across the aisle, running and winning campaigns that people can be proud of and respecting the rights to speak and listen and hear sometimes strongly held views.

Civility may be in short supply. It may also not be what attracts and wins over people.

Well-defined political differences are important. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams sparred sharply for decades, yet in the end kept open lines of communication. Civility isn’t wimpery. It is showing enough respect to gain trust. President Obama and Gov. Bob McDonnell both espouse civil political dialogue yet have not been credited with changing the tone in political capitals that have adopted poisonous polarization.

Civility isn’t easy. When someone barks that you have Hitler’s ideology, it’s hard not to snarl back a biting reply. American politics today reflect the civility levels of our society, which tolerate and employ a taste for nastiness, negativity and name-calling.

Leadership is the key ingredient in baking a tastier apple pie. Leaders, however well they can bake and grow the pie, cannot eliminate people’s taste for the sour. The poles at either end of both parties may prefer the sour. They demand a purity that punishes those who cooperate or compromise with the other side. They only want to see their own apples in the pie.

Could a Congress with a majority of very liberal Democrats and ultra-conservative Republicans govern well, or govern at all? Could either side engage in the art of compromise, find middle ground or talk in meaningful dialogue with the other side? Probably not without true leaders.

The problem in American politics today may not be the awful incivility of pundits and politicians yelling at each other as much as the polarizing purity of base politics. Democrats can lose their seats if their base cannot tolerate their ability to talk and work with Republicans. Those toward the middle or willing to work across the aisle are forced to keep a sharp eye over their left shoulder at who might come after them from the party’s base. Republican legislators are being booted out when their base rejects their willingness to compromise. Utah’s U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett was first elected in 1992 and was thrown out by his party’s activists in May for too little conservative purity and too much compromise.

If politics is the art of compromise and of achieving the possible instead of the perfect, then civility could be some of the grease that keeps the machinery intact. Presidents from Adams and Jefferson to George W. Bush and Barack Obama inherited suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous and ordinary American incivility and fortune. It comes with the job.

Civility is nice, but is it necessary? If Sorensen decides to create and present a conference on political civility, would anyone want to come? If the 17-year-old institute at the University of Virginia were to craft a conference on the polarization of politics and call it “Incivility in Action” would you be interested?

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