The Politics of Civility

By  Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor

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A customer goes up to the clerk with a half-gallon of 1% milk and a candy bar, and asks how much she owes.

“I’m not ringing this up. Who drinks 1% anyway?” scolds the clerk. “And what were you thinking about, buying that candy bar?”

It is said that no two people look exactly alike, nor do any two people think perfectly alike. Of the former, we are most tolerant. We appreciate that I do not look like Paul Reuter or that Joe DePinto doesn’t look like Greg Parker. We’re all different, and our physical differences make us more distinctive.

What about the way we think? Why is it that conservatives flock to Fox News and liberals to MSNBC? Why do more Republicans read The Wall Street Journal, and Democrats read The New York Times?

Simply put, why have we become so hostile toward different political points of view, looking only for echoes instead of diverse opinions?

This was the beauty of seeing George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on stage at our recent Outlook Leadership conference (see p. 53). A Republican and a Democrat with two different worldviews: They agree on many of the challenges but differ in their prescriptions for the cures.

It was a year ago when I was walking the NACS Show floor with my longtime CSP boss, Paul Reuter. He asked what I thought was a lighthearted question: “What would you think if we had George Bush and Bill Clinton on stage together at Outlook?”

Yeah, right! And what about Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, while we’re at it.

“No, I’m serious,” Paul said. “We’ve become so divided in a country that has so much, gives so much. We live in the greatest country in the world, and I wonder if we’re going to lose that if we don’t learn how to talk to each other.”

I was moved then and even more so now. Presidents Clinton and Bush both spoke about the decline in civil­ity and working together—think of the pairings of Hatch and Kennedy, McCain and Feingold in the Senate. The presi­dents blamed much of it on the blogo­sphere, and the culture of 24/7 piles of vitriol. We would certainly agree: Is it truly necessary for right-wing extremists to call our president Barack HUSSEIN Obama? Was it necessary for left-wing wackos to print greetings cards compar­ing Bush to a monkey?

Are we instilling in our children the values of civility when we devalue the office of president and diminish the degrees of discourse with name-calling and mudslinging?

Asked by Paul whether it is realistic to remove some of the negativity, President Bush responded, “No, I don’t think it is realistic. But I think it is realistic to elect people, however, who will not denigrate offices by engaging in personal attack and mudslinging.”

On the heels of Outlook, Presi­dent Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention, in part about civility. “Maybe just because I grew up in a different time,” he said during last month’s DNC keynote address, “but though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats.”

Then, praising past Republican presi­dents such as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, and his efforts in recent years with both Presidents Bush, Clinton continued: “So here’s what I want to say to you … When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurt­ing and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good, but what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation.

“…Now, why is this true? Why does cooperation work better than constant conflict? Because nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day.”

Remember that fictional store clerk I was telling you about, the one who chastises his customers—your custom­ers? He may not be as fictional as you think. I was recently in a store where a simple transaction turned to politics. In less than a minute, the cashier was bait­ing the customer. I thought it was some good old-fashioned trash talk—until the customer brushed past me in a huff and never completed his transaction. 

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