Civility in political debate

Civility is more than etiquette. Etiquette is just maintaining social conventions as required by tradition or authority.

Civility in the political context is the acknowledgment that our opponents may have a valid contribution or point to make. It's the reflection of an agreement that campaigns are not purely cut-throat competitions to be won by any means available. It's the commitment to the inherent value of the democratic process and the rule of law. It's a statement that what matters in campaigns includes what their results permit us to do through government afterward.

Absence of civility in political debate makes accomplishing anything for the public far more difficult once the campaigns are over. Instead, the tone of governing debate just stays hostile, with the losers doing everything they can to undermine the ability of the winners to accomplish anything positive. They don't want to see that, because it will make it tougher for them to attack in the next campaign. Lies and misrepresentations just keep piling up. Think today's Congress. Think the health care reform debate.

I don't mind if you label one of my ideas or proposals the dumbest thing since New Coke (so long as you explain why). When you think I'm just trying to dampen issue debate, go ahead and say so--as some have--and I'll engage on the merits of that accusation. All fair.

What I've tried to do in debate here is to discourage what I consider to be unnecessary levels of personal vitriol. Vitriol is not necessary to making most legitimate points; it rarely persuades thoughtful readers; and it's not productive of long-term constructive results. It only helps those who believe that "government is the problem", by making it tougher for us to get anything positive done through governing.

A hat tip here to Jerimee for the original debate about the meaning of "civility" which produced this post.


Speaking of civility and political debate

Open letter to all readers

If you are one of the very few people who have been blocked from BlueNC, please don't continue to register new accounts and show up using different names. The reason you were blocked is not because of your pseudonym, it is because your behavior has been deemed intolerably obnoxious. That is admittedly a subjective standard, but for better or for worse, making those calls comes with the territory.

At this point in the evolution of the Internet, it's not clear to me whether I have any legal recourse against people who continue to show up after they have been blocked. I'm looking into it, though, and will keep you posted.

As the owner of this blog, I don't like having to police comments every hour to keep offending parties under control. But police I must until I find another way to deter trespassers and stalkers.

If I have to resort to public humiliation as a last resort, I will.

Public humiliation works for me...

... when it's applied to others, of course. Back when I had the time, I used to hang out at for fun and they had a good solution for posters who would simply set up new accounts after being banned. Based on their ISP addresses, they'd be tagged (in bright red) beneath their new signatures as Frequent Poster 324 or whatever number they happened to be in the roll of shame. I'm certain the task of tagging was automatic as the tag would instantly appear the moment they posted. That would certainly save you the burden of having to constantly check for banned posters in disguise. And the shame of being in *red*... well, here that should work quite nicely! A few people there tried to act as if they were proud of their Frequent Poster label but, honestly, most left quickly because their goal of stirring the pot never succeeded once everyone knew it was them (and because they were often exposed as pretending to be different people supporting their own posts, which made them rightfully feel foolish). It was quite entertaining, come to think of it.

Good luck whatever you decide to do! May it not consume your time.

Katy Munger,
Progress North Carolina Action

Lead, follow or get out of the way....

Hear, Hear!

No one has ever been persuaded by an uncivil tone. While I may disagree with many of the people that post here, I still enjoy reading well thought out and reasoned arguments. This morning I was lucky enough to pass the time working a poll with a Nancy Shakir supporter who engaged me in civil conversation even after he found out I was a Republican! I did give him props for being one of the true believers and supporting Shakir because that really will be a coup if she pulls out a win tonight.

And as a novice blogger myself, I have to set my blog to screen comments until I can personally approve them because I don't have the time to continually check my blog for offensive comments. There's a fine line between the first amendment and offensive language in comments that serves no purpose other than to offend, but if it doesn't further the conversation, it doesn't belong.

don't discourage

I fear that what you describe as "civility" discourages honesty and accountability. I know that isn't how you mean it, nonetheless it is a concern that you haven't addressed.

It seems clear to me that a well-healed candidate would benefit more from a general hesitance to call bullshit. When a politician goes up on TV to reinvent their image, I certainly hope you wouldn't have us standing on the sidelines fretting about if someone's feelings are going to be hurt.

With the Gulf in flames, apartheid descending on Arizona, and segregation reinstated in Wake County, I hope we can agree that these elections are worth discussing candidly.

If we're talking about civility as a way of getting things done, I'd like to better understand what you are saying. I must admit that I have my doubts that Richard Burr (for example) is much interested in coming up with solutions to social ills, but I'd love to be wrong on that score.

If what you are talking about is an end in itself, well, most of North Carolina doesn't have the luxury. Let us focus first on stopping the foreclosures, stopping the evictions, stopping the deportations and non-violent arrests.

The privileged undermine the middle class on a daily basis. They only call it class warfare when we fight back.

I appreciate the opportunity to share my view with you, and to benefit from your thoughts.

Reply below.

Sorry, took so long writing my reply that another poster slipped in between. It's the second comment down.

Dan Besse

Good luck

Civility starts at the top and I don't really see anyone at the top of the R or D parties looking to moderate their tone any time soon. They'd sooner admit the moon is made of cheese than to admit their political opposite has a good point.

Valid questions.

If I thought that we had to choose between honesty and civility, I would choose honesty. I don't think that's the choice. There is a way to make most valid points without having to frame them in an accusation of personal cupidity, immorality, or dishonesty.

But an equally valid question is, why bother?

Encouragement of candor and fuller discussion would be one. If I accuse candidate A of a flip-flop every time s/he answers a question with other than a memorized formula, or discusses nuances and pro/cons in more detail, then I inadvertently promote robotic, formulaic repetition of canned talking points.

Just as important, and possibly more to the point in the short run, is that the harsher rhetoric just doesn't work very well for our side. I think I could accurately call Dick Cheney a chronic liar, for example, but I try not to do that (much)--primarily because undecided listeners don't react well to that. They're more likely to turn off listening to what I have to say about the substance of his comments.

What works as red meat to fire up Rush Limbaugh's committed listening base doesn't work at all to persuade moderate independents in an election.

Longer term, even if I've managed to slip into office with a fired-up narrow win on the basis of fire-breathing condemnations of everybody else around, I'm going to be mighty short of allies when it comes to getting anything passed or done.

Sure, we have to guard against the danger of going too far the other way and becoming a bunch of mealy-mouthed apologists for greedheads, crooks and cowards. (Like that one?)

But that's why you're there, to serve as the watchdog against excess in that direction.

Dan Besse

canned talking points

If I accuse candidate A of a flip-flop every time s/he answers a question with other than a memorized formula, or discusses nuances and pro/cons in more detail, then I inadvertently promote robotic, formulaic repetition of canned talking points.

Oh. Hadn't thought of that - a bit of a sad irony for me there...

I respectfully (hehe) disagree

but I try not to do that (much)--primarily because undecided listeners don't react well to that. They're more likely to turn off listening to what I have to say about the substance of his comments.

This seems to be the thrust of this argument, and political scientists since the republic began (and long before) have shown it not to be true.

Maybe it's not the mounds of research that say negative campaigning works (no matter what the public says it wants).

Maybe it's because being gay I'm used to being a political punching bag my whole life.

More to Jerimee's point and my feelings: I direct you to the words of Audre Lorde.

The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house.

Keep speaking the truth, even if it is unpleasant.


Negative campaigning.

This is a good issue for an extended discussion.

Negative campaigning, if well designed and credible, tends to have two impacts:
--Drives up the negatives of the target.
--Drives up the negatives of the attacker.

As the experience of Ken Lewis in today's primary will help show, I think, attack ads are not an effective way of increasing the attacking candidate's own level of support.

I submit that negative campaigning works less well for progressive Dems than for right-wingers because of the substance of the attacks that work best in today's political environment, and the different goals of the users. Attacks on crookedness of government, venal politicians, and waste of money stir up the conservative base. Attacks on corporate fraud and abuse stir up the progressive base. Both tend to depress overall turnout by increasing the cynicism level of the middle-grounders, the independents, and shore up their conviction that voting and politics are a waste of time.

Disingagement of the electorate in public policy is not what we're trying to achieve. We tend to want the voting public to be more convinced that their participation makes a difference, and that government in a democracy can produce positive results that benefit them.

The right-wingers preach that government doesn't work, so they don't care that attach campaigns make it harder for it work. That's what they want.

The nastier, more hostile campaigns get, the harder it becomes for progressive candidates to win and for progressive ideas of governance to be implemented.

Dan Besse

Negativity is in the eye of the beholder

I dislike the annual "negative campaigning" discussion because the term is so amorphous. The idea that negative campaigning suppresses turnout is simply not backed up by the research. Kim Kahn's much-cited article in the APSR might be helpful here:

Does negative campaigning influence the likelihood of voting in elections? Our study of U.S. Senate campaigns indicates the answer is "yes." We find that people distinguish between, useful negative information presented in an appropriate manner and irrelevant and harsh mudslinging. As the proportion of legitimate criticisms increases in campaigns, citizens become more likely to cast ballots. When campaigns degenerate into unsubstantiated and shrill attacks, voters tend to stay home. Finally, we find that individuals vary in their sensitivity to the tenor of campaigns. In particular, the tone is more consequential for independents, for those with less interest in politics, and for those with less knowledge about politics.

So, how one defines "negative" is really central to this issue. If we put aside the comments of your typical anonymous internet political assholes for a moment and limit the discussion to official campaign communication, I think that this US Senate race has been quite mild.

Lewis's ad about Cunningham's banking vote was probably the only official communication that could qualify as "negative" and it was at least nominally about Cal's legislative record and it cited news reports throughout. You can question the accuracy of the claim, as Cal's campaign did, but discussing someone's record on such an important issue is far from out of bounds in a political campaign.

Civility is always important. Baseless allegations (like Dole's "Godless" ad) or shrill mockery (like when Walter Dalton's campaign called an opponent "Pander Bear" pdf in your 2008 race?) have no place in civilized discourse of any kind, including campaigns. No debate there. But drawing contrast between candidates (what most people call negative campaigning) is, I believe, vital to a healthy political debate. Would anyone here think that questioning Richard Burr's bank run comments or millions in campaign donations from big business qualifies as negative campaigning...?

Worthwhile distinction.

The professional spin doctors tend to call all negative campaigning "comparative" campaigning, but I think that there is a useful distinction between factual, relevant issue comparison and Rovian material.

When referring to Ken's ads, my prediction was that they would not rebound to his benefit, and any voters peeled away by the criticism would be more likely to end up with Elaine. A large part of the problem in his case would have been an inadequate base of positive, self-introductory advertising before he launched the negative one. Budget limits, I expect.

At any rate, the returns are coming in now & we'll see soon.

Dan Besse

I think it's about context

I may be delusional, but I have a sense that people who bother to read a blog like BlueNC are not average bears.

Just speaking for myself ... I try to learn as much about candidates as I can, which in some cases, is precious little. I do pay attention to criticism of candidates on both substance and style, but I tend to discount hyperbolic commentary in favor of questioning the source.

Mind you, I'm a person with a long, sad history of hyperbole myself. I mostly try to steer clear of that these days, though I also admit to occasional backsliding. At BlueNC, I've concluded that it feels either (1) counterproductive or (2) unnecessary.

With regard to writing or commenting about Republicans here, I'm not sure why I do it. Mostly just working through my deep frustration with their narrow-minded contempt for the world around them, I suppose.

a distinction

Dan, I have every reason to be civil with you, for several reasons. FIrst, because you are an engaged citizen and policy leader, who has shown through involvement that you care about the issues. For the same reason, I am civil to my friend Winston, who is as far right as you and I are left, but who is engaged in the system and thinks deeply about issues. Second, based on prior experience I expect you to be civil, even if Frank went a little overboard in his advocacy for you in the heat of battle (heh, just joking, Frank), so I will certainly try to return the favor. Third, you are persuadable. Why be rude to someone whose mind I can change? Fourth, I know you will accept defeat by working harder the next time, and I might as well keep things on good terms, because the next time we either will agree, or you might beat me.

But I have little incentive to be civil to people who have no intention of doing the same. These are people who seek only to disturb, disrupt, and destroy. I have little incentive to be civil to people who have no intention of bettering the system or improving the lot of their fellow citizens. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and people who quote them are not deserving of such respect for any reason beyond being human beings, even if that status never makes its way into their own benighted brains.

The only reason to be civil to such people is strategic, because it might influence others who observe the conflict. Christ, Ghandi and King nailed that one.

But while I will endeavor to be civil to such folks, I will occasionally slip into the kind of ridicule and derision that they rightfully deserve.

"Man is free at the moment he wishes to be." -Voltaire

Oh yeah? Screw you man.

Just kidding.


Your idea fits in with the litmus test I use regarding a person's willingness to ask, "What if I'm wrong?" People who can't engage with that question honestly are generally not worth the breath it takes to communicate with them.

Which begs the question, what if I'm wrong. Perpetual progressive angst!

Distinction noteworthy.

Limbaugh, Beck, et al are beyond help. The only reason to control the impulse to tear them a new one is when people are listening who may equate us to them. (And since I'm never sure who's listening, I try not to drink and blog...)

And thanks for the kind words. Please excuse me in retrospect for those times when I lost my temper two years ago.

Dan Besse