UConn president Herbst talks civility, argument

“Does America know how to argue?” asked Susan Herbst. “I think the resounding answer is ‘no.’”

“You can’t cane someone to death on the floor of the Senate anymore,” UConn President Susan Herbst told the Ridgefield League of Women Voters at a lunch at Bernard’s last month. “It’s just not acceptable.”

She was recounting America’s less-than-cordial political climate, which includes deadly duels and beatings, plenty of mudslinging and hyperbole, which she details in her most recent book,  Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics. 

“We glory in some of it — we thought the tea party was really great. I mean the 18th Century tea party,” she said.

Ms. Herbst, whose academic background is in political science, argued that incivility has always been part of our politics, and while it can be unproductive, even harmful, it might play an important role.

The cover of Ms. Herbst’s book depicts South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks severely bludgeoning abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, over an anti-slavery speech Mr. Sumner had made.

“Our founding fathers in general were no models of dignity or civility,” she said. “There were bench-clearing beatings in the U.S. Senate… people brought  guns and knives when they didn’t get their way.”

Today, political incivility is largely limited to words — hyperbolic shouting on television, in the halls of Congress, in campaign ads.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to say that incivility is on the increase, nor is it on the decrease,” she said, adding that it comes in waves. She said the worst period was around the time of the Civil War.

The modern wave of incivility has among its roots a 1990s push for legislators worried about retaining their seats to move back to their districts, rather than moving to Washington, D.C., as was typical at the time.

That meant less social interaction among fellow legislators who might hold opposing views.

“They’d be soccer moms and parents,” she said of the period before they started to move out of D.C. “That’s over.”

But, she said, there is a place for incivility in politics.

“The reason you see so much negative advertising [during political races] is that it works,” she said.

Incivility can also make for more exciting news. As a result, issues are often framed in overly simplified, bipolar terms, with one side against another, she said.

But the media reflects its audience, not the other way around, she said,

“The media are a tool for  people to do what they want to do,” Ms. Herbst said.

She said generally more even tempered shows like the PBS NewsHour are boring compared with MSNBC’s and Fox News’s more excitable hosts and guests.

“I don’t watch it that much because it’s pretty slow,” she said of the PBS NewsHour, adding that if people didn’t watch the more dramatic cable channels, the TV producers would find a new format.

Regarding the recent ‘fiscal cliff’ debate, she said, “I didn’t think it was that bad… As a matter of fact, it did end kind of civilly.”

“It was unproductive… It was really dumb, but I don’t think it was uncivil… John Boehner didn’t challenge anybody to a duel.”

She said the media still stuck to the incivility narrative when the debate turned into an incivility dud. “They told us to tune in for the really bad stuff.”

She joked about reports that Republican House Speaker Boehner had been overheard swearing at Democratic Senate.  The reports were overblown, she said.

“John Boehner said a bad word… so what — he was thinking worse!” she said.

“Maybe we need a thicker skin in politics,” she said. “If it was just speech, are we such delicate creatures that if somebody yells and screams that we just crumble?”

In her academic work, she’s observed a bigger problem than incivility: A fear of arguing. That’s in part because of debate being conflated with incivility. “Our students are afraid… to get into arguments… They don’t see a lot of models around for how to argue and do it civilly…

“Does America know how to argue?… I think the resounding answer is ‘no.’”

She said fear of debating and arguing is a step in the wrong direction.

“We can’t make progress as a democracy without arguments,” she said.

Ms. Herbst didn’t claim to have any simple ‘solutions.’

She said that political scientists like herself write entire books on problems in politics with “a very small last chapter about what we can do about it.”

Learning to argue a point rigorously in schools would be a good start, she said.

“Teach argument, teach debate,” she said. “There are a lot of public speaking classes, but that’s not debate.”

She added she realizes “it’s a lot to put on K-12 with the kind of teach-to-the-test mentality,” but that it would be beneficial. “You’d have a very different type of citizenry,” she said.

She added that “We also need to learn to listen,” and that surrounding ourselves with people and information we agree with doesn’t give us much practice in listening.

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