Krugman, Ryan, and Civil Debate

Clive Cook, over at Bloomberg View, did a particularly good job last week of articulating one of the central dilemmas that face many of us who are interested in civility within the landscape of our highly charged political present. His article, “Krugman’s Wrong: Civility Isn’t Stupid,” looks at one of the biggest players and one of the most common tropes in progressive politics in the United States; but his point is well made, and equally applicable among conservatives.

The dilemma is this: is it ever acceptable to take a break from civility and launch an ad hominem attack on a political opponent? Especially when it is apparent, from your perspective, that that opponent is acting in bad faith?

Cook (rightly, we think) says that it is not. And though Cook defends economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman against critics who accuse Krugman of calling Representative Paul Ryan stupid (he didn’t), he is rightly critical of Krugman’s tendency, as he puts it, to become too easily exasperated … and much too quick to see bad faith (mostly on the opposing side, rarely on his own).

All of this stems from a recent column, “Knowledge Isn’t Power,” and a blog post that Krugman made as a follow-up called “Con Men Aren’t Stupid.” In the latter, he dismisses civility, saying that he has documented [Paul] Ryan’s many cons very extensively, showing in particular that his budgets were sold on false pretenses. And that if it is his job to inform readers about what’s going on, then the attempt to sell right-wing goals under false pretenses is an important part of the story.

Cook’s point in his response at Bloomberg View is that while that may be true in a limited way, it is also profoundly counterproductive. He writes:

The problem with [Krugman’s] view on civility is that without a minimum of mutual respect, debate degenerates into a useless squabble, which is what U.S. politics has become. In a functioning democracy, deals have to be struck among groups with different views. Differences of opinion shouldn’t be suppressed, but if mutual disgust rises to the point where negotiation is no longer possible, everybody loses.

And he writes that if you begin from a position of contempt for your political opponent, you don’t expect to learn anything from him, and you lose your ear for finding what’s valuable in the arguments of people you disagree with.

Both are important points. Both characterize a regular feature in Krugman’s popular writing that undercuts analyses that are otherwise often well-conceived. And both offer a valuable lesson to conservative pundits, too, where ad hominem attacks — of the President, of Democratic leaders, and of media figures including Krugman himself — too often find enthusiastic voice.

There is a lesson to be learned in this: that though we may believe, under certain circumstances, that a break with civility is justified, more often, as Cook says, it’s mere self-indulgence. Ad hominem attacks are an exercise in letting off steam, or of riling up one’s own supporters. But they do not change minds. And they bring us no closer to the kind of productive (if occasionally contentious) debate that leads to compromise and ultimately to positive legislative outcomes.

Ranked Choice Voting and Civility?

A new study, conducted after the 2013 elections by the Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University, suggests that ranked choice voting (RCV) may offer some positive potential in generating more civil outcomes in American elections. In a report released by FairVote [PDF], a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that advocates for electoral reform (including RCV), municipal voters in cities with ranked choice elections were significantly more likely to perceive candidates’ campaigns to be less negative than in previous years. And candidates were significantly less likely to perceive themselves — or their opponents — as having propagated negative personal attacks.

Ranked Choice Voting and Civility?

Since 1941, ranked choice voting has been a feature of elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and more than a dozen other cities across the United States, including San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, have recently instituted the system. According to the League of Women Voters, ranked choice voting allows voters to rank up to three candidates, in order of preference, when marking their ballots. If a candidate receives a clear majority in the election, that candidate wins. However, if no candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes cast, second and third choices are considered in what amounts to an instant run-off election.

Potentially, this makes it easier for third-party candidates to receive significant numbers of votes. And it offers less incentive for major political parties to offer just one candidate apiece. Advocates, according to Minneapolis’ MinnPost, claim that RCV:

Alleviates the need to vote for a candidate you don’t prefer just because they can beat others you like less. With RCV you can vote your true preferences without fear of “wasting” your vote. This is good for independents and small-party candidates, and also avoids a situation where two “good” candidates split the vote and a “bad” candidate wins.

The Eagleton Poll study considered 2,400 voters, divided equally across cities with ranked choice voting and without. They examined municipal elections in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Cambridge, and compared them with Seattle, Tulsa, and Boston.

Among their significant results, they found that in answer to the question, “were this year’s campaigns more or less negative?”, 42.2% of respondents in cities with ranked choice voting perceived an improvement in tone, while that was true for only 27.8% of respondents in cities with traditional ballots. And they found that respondents in cities with RCV were more than 8% more likely to claim satisfaction with the conduct of campaigns.

This supports anecdotal evidence from San Francisco, from their initial implementation of the system in the mayoral election of 2004. According to the New York Times, that election saw campaign innovations like joint fundraisers featuring multiple candidates. The Times attributed such cooperation to the ranked choice voting system, and quoted Eugene C. Wong, then a mayoral candidate, saying that, in contrast to other kinds of elections, “I am not opposed to saying that if I don’t win, then I hope one of these other guys wins.”

We here at the Institute for Civility in Government do not advocate ranked choice voting, or any other specific changes to the electoral system. But we do support attempts to transform the venomous, adversarial culture that spills over from our partisan campaigns into the work of governing. And as an innovation, this looks to have potential.

Civility and Cybercivility in Schools: Two Updates

In December of 2013, Joshua Starr, superintendent of schools for Montgomery County, Maryland, faced a distinctly uncivil snow-day situation online. According to Washington D.C.’s NBC 4, as the weather worsened and as he decided whether or not to cancel school he began receiving tweets from students that ranged from snarky to “offensive and disturbing.”

According to NBC, Starr said that some of these tweets were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework. But not all. They also included rampant use of racial epithets and curse words, and threats to himself and to his family.

In response, Starr wrote a letter to parents calling for a renewed conversation about how we can support our children in using technology in a way that is healthy, productive, and positive. We need, he said, to talk about “cybercivility”: how we can help our children grow into responsible and caring adults who interact with one another in a civil, respectful way. And he directed his staff to develop some materials and methods to help schools and families navigate these conversations.

In 2014, it seems, Joshua Starr has leveraged his experience to take matters one step further in a constructive direction. In this February 19 interview on D.C.’s Fox 5 news, he speaks with reporters about the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Cybercivility Task Force — a new initiative that will — according to mymcmedia.comdevelop strategies to raise awareness of the need for cybercivility in how MCPS students and adults communicate online, and guide the creation of tools for schools, parents and community members that encourage conversations about cybercivility.


The goal, Starr says, is to teach our kids to behave online in the same way we expect them to comport themselves in public… Just like we expect our kids to say please and thank you, and all that, we want them to act the same on Twitter, or Facebook, or wherever else they are socially engaged on the internet.

You can find out more about the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Cybercivility Task Force by clicking here.

* * *

In the meantime, New Hampshire Public Radio has this short interview with Malcolm Smith, professor in the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Education and founder of the Courage to Care Program, a curriculum aimed at encouraging empathy and civility among middle school students. Like Joshua Starr, he talks about the importance of training students in civility as a bulwark against bullying. And as part of teacher training, he has been instructing nascent educators in techniques that do just that.

Finding Common Ground on NSA Surveillance

Friday, January 24, according to The Hill newspaper, the Republican National Committee formally renounced the “dragnet” surveillance program at the National Security Agency (NSA), and overwhelmingly approved a measure calling for lawmakers to end the program and create a special committee to investigate domestic surveillance efforts.

Finding Common Ground on NSA Surveillance

The NSA initiative in question — actually an array of programs designed to collect information about Internet users, including American citizens — was first revealed in May of 2013 in a series of articles by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian and Barton Gellman in The Washington Post, based on information provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The programs uncovered include the now well-known PRISM, in which the NSA worked with Internet content providers including Yahoo, Google, Apple, and Microsoft to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats. They include efforts by the NSA to undermine Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption, the technology which, according to Reuters, protects millions of websites beginning in “Https”, including banks and other financial institutions. And they include a secret $10 million contract with RSA, one of the most influential firms in the computer security industry, to create a backdoor in their ubiquitous encryption products.

Finding Common Ground on NSA Surveillance
A leaked slide detailing the companies participating in the NSA’s PRISM program.

Previously, the most vocal opponents of the NSA surveillance programs have been organizations perceived to be at the liberal end of American politics, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Both organizations have supported legal challenges against the NSA.

Among conservatives, the most vocal opponent has previously been the libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul (Ky.).

But the Republican National Committee’s decision to condemn these programs suggests that they are an issue that may transcend political polarization in the United States. It suggests that this is one area where concerns about the intrusiveness of big government, and concerns about the preservation of civil liberties in the face of post-9/11 terrorism countermeasures, have created common cause across ideological lines.

As Senator Paul has written: these programs represent an astounding assault on the Constitution — a violation of the Bill of Rights and especially the Fourth Amendment. And the ACLU and the EFF agree.

The defense of NSA surveillance does not fall neatly along party lines, either. Representative Peter King, Republican from New York, has disagreed publicly with the Republican National Committee’s decision, telling Politico:

Republicans are supposed to be the party of national defense. It would be one thing if people wanted to pass legislation [posing] questions. But to talk about ‘spying’ and unconstitutionality … it’s basically repudiating the policies of the Republican Party over the last 12 years, policies that kept us safe.

While Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat from California and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that the constitutionality of NSA surveillance programs is up to the courts. But that the collection of phone numbers, which can be run when a terrorist target in another country calls an American number, is something in my view which protects this country.

The fact that this is not a party-line debate is encouraging for the cause of civility. It demonstrates that activists and politicians on both sides of the aisle can put aside their differences to pursue those goals on which they can agree. But not only that. It demonstrates, too, that political parties are not monolithic — that there is room in the United States for political allies to disagree, yet still remain allies at the end of the day.

Potentially, the issue of NSA surveillance is a model for trans-partisan political debate. And perhaps it is one that might be fruitfully applied to other issues, too.

Institute Featured in the Smoky Mountain News

The Institute’s definition of civility was featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer, and in the Houston Chronicle, at the end of November. But it looks like we missed one: the Institute also appeared in a column titled ‘Civility Begins with Us’ in the Smoky Mountain News — a weekly newspaper out of Waynesville, North Carolina.

Institute Featured in the Smoky Mountain News

The November 20 column, written by retired seminary professor Doug Wingeier, offers five approaches to dealing with disagreement and conflict — withdrawing, smoothing, compromising, forcing, and negotiating. And it makes the argument that while each has its place, and while each can be approached with civility and respect, only in negotiating — and to a lesser extent in compromising — is it possible to gain a satisfying, productive result.

In coming to this conclusion, Wingeier writes about the Institute button that he wears on his jacket — Civility is Catching: Pass It On! — and he quotes the Institute’s core definition of civility, and part of the extended definition, too. Civility, he writes, is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. And it is:

Disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, staying present with those with whom we disagree, and negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody is ignored. And civility begins with us.

We contacted Doug Wingeier to ask why he chose the Institute’s definition, and he told us that when he Googled civility, ours was the definition that was right on target for the column, and for civic discourse in general. He continued:

I believe that all human beings, as children of God — whether I agree with them or not — are persons of infinite worth and deserve respect as such. Verbal abuse can be as damaging as physical abuse, demeans both object and speaker, undermines community, and subverts one’s objective of making a point or accomplishing a goal.

And he told us that he thought the Institute’s project was a key part in building a truly democratic society.

We couldn’t agree more.

And if you do too — if you believe in the efficacy of civil speech and civil action to solve problems, and in the importance of treating one’s neighbors with respect, friends and adversaries alike — add your voice to ours. Click here to join the Institute for Civility in Government today. Or here to make a donation.

Nelson Mandela’s Legacy of Civility

Nelson Mandela, Voting in 1994
Nelson Mandela voting in 1994, in South Africa’s first multi-racial election. Photo by Paul Weinberg, via Wikimedia Commons.

All too often we underestimate the power and virtue of civility. You just want us all to be nice, folks say – as if there is anything wrong with that. But civility is about so much more than manners or mood. It is about so much more than politeness or political correctness. Civility is about intentionality and hard work.

It takes intentionality and hard work to choose courses of action that are difficult and often unpopular. It takes intentionality and hard work to put the common good above personal agenda, anger, frustration, greed, or fatigue.

Civility’s payoff, however, is huge. And there is no better example than Nelson Mandela.

A hero in life, the choices Nelson Mandela made and the leadership he displayed helped achieve a peace and a future for South Africa that no one had ever even dared to dream, much less act upon. His example and legacy sets the standard for statesmanship and selflessness.

How tragic if we only admire him, and do not follow his example.

Among the Quotes of the Month the Institute has sent out to our members over the years are several from Nelson Mandela.

Go and speak to your enemies. (But know that) you cannot change someone else unless you first change yourself….

I am not a saint, unless you define a saint as (being) a sinner who keeps on trying.

Over and over Mandela encouraged the rest of us to believe that we can make the same kind of choices that he did, with results that would be just as magnificent. He never pretended that those choices would be easy – only that they are essential.

It always seems impossible, until it is done.

If we would honor the man with more than words, we will work for a culture of mutual respect and cooperative effort rather than one of polarization and personal gain. The stakes are high. The choice is ours. Join us.

— Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, Institute co-founders

On the Passing of Nelson Mandela

BBC News is reporting this evening that Nelson Mandela has died.

Mr Mandela, 95, led South Africa’s transition from white-minority rule in the 1990s, after 27 years in prison.

He had been receiving intense home-based medical care for a lung infection after three months in hospital.

In a statement on South African national TV, Mr Zuma said Mr Mandela had “departed” and was at peace.

Mandela was imprisoned in 1962, having been convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the white-minority government of South Africa. According to The Raw Story, he remained on a US terror watch list until 2008, and was once described by late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the leader of a terrorist organization (The African National Congress).

But that is not his legacy. After his 1990 release, Mandela worked closely with the South African government to negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid and establish racially inclusive elections. According to Fox News, in 1993 he and President Frederik Willem De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1994, at the age of 75, he was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa.

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela in 1992. Via Wikimedia Commons and the World Economic Forum

Today, Nelson Mandela is a figure whose legacy unites leaders around the world, from all ends of the political spectrum. In the United States, upon news of his death, Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner called Mandela an unrelenting voice for democracy, a testament to enduring faith in God and respect for human dignity, and a champion of peace and racial harmony.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted: In a way, Mandela was both the “George Washington” and “Abraham Lincoln” of his country. We’re so fortunate to have lived in his time.

And President Barack Obama called him a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

Both in his personal story, and in what he has come to mean to people around the world, Nelson Mandela illustrates the triumph of civility. And we here grieve for his loss.

Institute in the Houston Chronicle

First it was Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer. And now it’s the Houston Chronicle. The last half of November saw the Institute’s definition of civility quoted in not one, but two guides to holiday comportment.

Houston Chronicle

The first, of course, was Dimon Kendrick-Holmes’s November 22 column, The Word for Today, and for the Holidays, which we featured last week.

But even more recently, the definition was featured in a Chronicle blog post by The Peace Pastor, Marty Troyer, simply titled Survival Guide for the Holidays.

In Troyer’s post, he tells us that Thanksgiving — and the Holiday Season as a whole — is all about extroverted time with people who believe differently, vote differently, function differently, parent differently, eat differently, relax differently, entertain differently, pray differently, and expect differently than you do. It is a time, he writes, that is as ripe for anxiety as it is for giving thanks.

But to this, he tells us, civility is the solution.

I love the definition of civility from Tomas Spath: “Civility” is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. Speak the truth, tell your story and don’t let anyone run all over you. The Jesus ethic does not demand you lose arguments. Honesty is essential. But so is granting others the same amount of respect you desire. Don’t in any way hide your beliefs, but at the same time stay engaged with those you disagree with. Taking a learning, rather than a “teaching” posture, can often diffuse the anxiety and shows respect for those around the table, even if you experience them as “enemies.”

As we wrote last week, Institute’s definition of civility — and its insistence on a more civil discourse at every level of society — is catching on. The Ledger-Enquirer’s Dimon Kendrick-Holmes told us that it is applicable well beyond the bounds of government. And he is absolutely right.

But it cannot spread alone.

If you believe in the efficacy of civil speech and civil action in Washington D.C., or City Hall, or around the family table, add your voice to ours. Click here to join the Institute for Civility in Government today. Or here to make a donation.

Civility Definition featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer

Civility Definition featured in Columbus, Georgia's Ledger-EnquirerLast week saw the Institute’s definition of civility featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer. As part of his November 22 column, The Word for Today, and for the Holidays, executive editor Dimon Kendrick-Holmes quotes it in full:

Claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

And he comments astutely that it is as applicable around the Thanksgiving table — among relatives with whom one may have significant personal and political differences — as it is in Congress’ hallowed halls.

The proof, he writes, is in his own personal history. Kendrick-Holmes recounts a visit from some eight years past in which he — a veteran — opened his home to a set of relatives who had come to protest at the army base at Fort Benning, just outside of Columbus.

There were some awkward moments, he writes, like when his house guests thought it wonderful that he had spent four years living abroad, only to find out — to their chagrin — that it was as part of a military assignment.

But civility saved the day.

Civility, he writes, allows us to focus on the things you have in common, and try to listen and learn about a few things you don’t. And it insists that — from literature, to shape note singing, to the state of education in America — there are always more topics of conversation that bring us together than split us apart.

We asked Dimon Kendrick-Holmes why he chose the Institute’s particular definition of the word. And here is what he said: the usual web dictionaries weren’t giving me much more than “politeness” and “courtesy”. And when I typed “define civility” in Google, the Institute’s definition really stood out.

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes isn’t the only person who thinks so. And his column in the Ledger-Enquirer is just the latest example of how the Institute’s definition of civility — and its insistence on a more civil discourse at every level of society — continues to spread. But it cannot spread alone.

If you want to add your voice to the chorus calling for civility, click through and join the Institute for Civility in Government today. If you support the institute’s core values, and its mission to facilitate dialogue and teach respect, click here to make a donation.

And certainly, as Dimon Kendrick-Holmes tells us in his column: let’s all focus a little bit on civility this holiday season.