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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Making the case for civility

Question: Vitriolic political rhetoric is on the rise for one simple reason: it works. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, what can political, business and community leaders do to change the political dynamic so that demonizing opponents is not a winning strategy? How do we end the rhetorical arms race?

No advantage can possibly come to anyone who tries to seize it in the middle of this national tragedy. It's a hyper-sensitive issue where the people will now lead, as a consensus in public opinion begins to gel. Top officials can lead by preaching the need for statesmanship, and they must lead by backing up their preaching by acting like a statesperson.

The Tucson tragedy is at least a momentary reset in the super-heated discussion in Washington. The truth is that no one knows what the long-run impact is going to be, and everyone is scrambling to find the right note.

Two big long-term effects could be possible. One is on the white-hot rhetoric. Sharp tongues and sharper symbols, from nasty name-calling to gun sights on websites, will be hard to defend on any side. Everyone is likely to retreat from the harshest rhetoric. The other is on substance. The tragedy will make it even harder for either side to take polarizing positions just to appeal to its base, if there's little substance behind the vote. The Republicans, for example, have backed away for the time being from the health-care repeal vote. The Democrats have stopped the counterattacks. When they get back to work, it's going to be tougher now for anyone to take a stand that seems largely symbolic. That's a good thing if it leads to more focused debate on the big issues that face us.

The Tucson tragedy provides an unrivaled opportunity for leaders to lead, to back away from bogus campaigns and acidic rhetoric that has the sole purpose of polarizing citizens.

None of this, however, gets at the core fact that there is a huge amount of anger out there searching for a target of some kind. We are staggering out of the biggest economic meltdown since the Depression. Lots of people have lost their jobs. Many homeowners are looking at mega-losses on their homes or face foreclosure. The terrorism threat still looms, and the nation's future is uncertain. There's the sense that some players, especially Wall Streeters at the bottom of the mess, got off easy while everyone else got stuck with the bill--and that taxpayers are having to foot the bill at a time when they have little left to give.

There's a lot of anger out there looking for a target, and it's going to be almost irresistibly tempting for each party to use the popular anger, once again, at the other's expense. We have a temporary reprieve, but the forces are heavily weighed on getting right back in the soup--perhaps with the extra-sharp edges on both poles of the debate cut away, but with the underlying core unchanged.

Unless, that is, a small group of leaders stands forward and uses the case for civility to recast the political debate. It's risky to resort to sanity and common sense. No one knows just how big an audience that might find. But this could be a sea-change moment with new opportunity for anyone daring enough to seize the standard of civility. That's what Americans are saying they want, and we ought to take them at their word.

Do we really want it? And can leaders find a way to make it happen? That's the ultimate question about whether the tone in Congress will change.

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By Donald Kettl

 |  January 11, 2011; 7:22 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crime , Crisis leadership , Ethics , Failures , Government leadership , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"Unless, that is, a small group of leaders stands forward and uses the case for civility to recast the political debate. It's risky to resort to sanity and common sense. No one knows just how big an audience that might find. But this could be a sea-change moment with new opportunity for anyone daring enough to seize the standard of civility. That's what Americans are saying they want, and we ought to take them at their word."

Yes, the political leaders are stepping forward, as evidenced by the speeches given in support of a resolution passed in the House yesterday. More often that not, the call included a greater attention to civility.

Rush Limbaugh has said that "civility" means "shut-up". He is wrong. Limbaugh can continue to call the president a Nazi and his administration "a regime", call Democrats, government employees, teachers, and welfare recipients "parasites", "leeches" and "maggots". He can continue to insist Americans who vote differently than he does are "intentionally destroying America". And he can continue to insist in the most heated, fired-up tone that he is delivering "the truth".

And at every step we can use our own free speech to point out just what he is doing. After all, if it is true that our country is in a "regime" run by a "Nazi" populated by other Americans who are "parasites" "destroying the country", who can be held at fault for an assassination, if that is actually "the truth" Limbaugh promotes?

I can guarantee this writer and all readers that Americans do indeed want more civility and that each citizen has the responsibility to work in that direction.

Consider the alternative. Do we want to throw out 250 years of relative stability vis a vis the rest of the world?

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