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“Congress has had ebbs and flows of civility,” Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson was saying. “It’s not just a linear trajectory to the present with everything getting worse.”

Jamieson, the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication and the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, delivered that verdict at the Penn Conference on Civility and American Politics in Washington this past April. “Whatever we have now,” she added, “is certainly not as bad as the duels that characterized the Senate and the House and led to the death of one member in 1793.”

It is safe to say that among the platoon of academics and two Congressmen in attendance, there was little nostalgia for the days when lawmakers would occasionally break into armed combat. But many bemoaned a perceived dearth of decorum, and worried that incivility might be exacerbating divisions within the electorate and crippling the nation’s chances for good governance.

There was a time, for instance, when the Senate’s annual group photo signaled a pause in duels and nasty partisanship alike. But that wasn’t the case in June of 2004, when Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy breezily greeted Vice President Dick Cheney as though relations between the two were “peaches and cream,” as Cheney later recalled. In fact, Leahy had effectively charged the vice president with cronyism regarding Halliburton’s no-bid contracts in Iraq just a few days before. Evidently too angry to indulge in bipartisan small talk, Cheney brought the colloquy to a halt by instructing Leahy to perform an act that would have violated the administration’s stance on sexual abstinence were it not anatomically impossible.

Within hours of this tiff, news outlets were decrying the state of public discourse in their typical fashion—by relentlessly amplifying the expletive that had been deemed so corrosive. And that was only a preview of the blistering rhetoric surrounding the presidential election a few months later, which seamlessly carried over to the congressional races of 2006.

Can citizens expect their representatives to address big policy challenges if they’re addressing one another with playground taunts? That was the main question put to conference participants as they assessed the state of the union and tried to put things in perspective. Tapping into the annals of legislative history and surveying more recent research, they painted a more complex picture than the popular narrative of permanent decline.

Jamieson cited research concluding that incivility spikes at predictable times in American politics, such as a change in the legislative balance of power. Now that Democrats have regained congressional majorities after chafing under Republican rule for 12 years, retaliatory tactics and bad manners are to be expected, just as in 1994 when the reverse occurred. What makes the current era different from past ones is the way 24-hour news media play into the dynamic. Shout-a-thons in the mold of CNN’s late and unlamented Crossfire condition viewers and participants alike to equate politics with insolence rather than measured debate. Jamieson argued that even C-SPAN has distorted the process, by providing a daily platform for ideological warfare.

“The access that C-SPAN was providing for the morning one-minute speeches increased the likelihood that those members who wanted to get into evening news would … get up and give incendiary statements that were far afield of the normative deliberation that was actually occurring most of the day,” she observed.

But even if the media landscape bears some responsibility for polarizing the electorate, it’s not clear if that’s such a bad thing.

“Polarization is associated with higher voter turnout, more political engagement, more political participation,” said Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution. And considering the passage in recent years of No Child Left Behind, the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill, Sarbanes-Oxley, and the dramatic expansion of the Medicare drug program, he added, “It’s hard to make the case that partisanship has led to gridlock across the board.”

So can a politician be too civil? That’s the question President Gutmann put to Senator Joe Lieberman, noting that the Democrat’s frequent collaboration with Republicans and support of the Bush administration on Iraq has not been “a home run,” as his failure to win Connecticut’s Democratic primary in 2006 demonstrated. Lieberman rejected that proposition. He sees his subsequent triumph in the general election as an indication of public discontent over partisan incivility that has stalled Congress on major issues like foreign policy, energy, and the environment. “They are fed up with it for an obvious reason,” he said. “It’s getting in the way of us helping them solve their problems.”

Yet House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, expressed a substantially different view, invoking the founders of the republic to argue that the legislative branch was purposely engineered to limit the executive’s capacity for action.

“Our system of government is designed to not have any rapid or quick change in it,” he observed, echoing the common view of Congress as the necessary brakes to the engine of the executive branch. In that view, breaches of etiquette and rhetorical excesses aren’t the main impediments to the passage of big-issue legislation, which may not be viewed as a problem by advocates of limited government.

But even if the parties disagree about the degree of activism to which lawmakers should aspire, the value of civility is something that just about every member of Congress is willing to get behind—at least in theory. —T.P.

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