Relationships Come First: Insight from the Citizens’ Civility Symposium

The Institute for Civility in Government's Citizens' Civility Symposium brought together people of all political persuasions to discuss the political process–quite civilly, I am pleased to report. While many attendees held different positions on the issues, we came to a consensus that debate in a free democratic republic should be civil.

As the invited guests spoke, they shared stories of how they had been victims of America's civility deficit. Former House Representative Bill Archer (R-TX) spoke of how Bob Novak called him a communist on the adversarial political news show, Crossfire. Rep. Archer continued by mentioning how a fellow congressperson had called him "Hitler" and a "Nazi" on the House floor.

Former House Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) shared similar stories including one where he was called a "Fascist" and a "Communist…" by the same person… in the same sentence. Apparently, the irony was lost on the uncivil politico using those epithets, since fascism is typically associated with the far-right and communism is typically associated with the far-left.

Current House Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) shared his surprise at how soon Democrats and Republicans are segregated once they are elected to office. As they prepare to begin their careers in Washington, D. C., all new congresspeople are invited to attend workshops orienting them to their new jobs. As Rep. Cuellar walked onto one of the buses that would take the newly-elected officials to the orientation, the bus grew silent. Someone stood up and informed him he was on the "wrong bus" and wasn't "wanted there," a scenario reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights' era. It turns out that was the "Republican" bus and that the parties do not intermingle in the orientation process. This experience led Rep. Cuellar to suggest that civility in politics is, in large part, a function of the relationships politicians form with one another.

In recent years, the number of congresspeople living in D.C. has decreased, making it more difficult for them to interact and develop personal relationships. Years of research document the many effects that this segregation may have on inter-party interactions. For example, Allport (1954) suggested that interacting with people who belong to different groups can sometimes reduce hostility and promote cooperation between groups. More recent research by Bandura (1999) and Haslam (2006) indicates that when people do not develop personal relationships with outgroup members, they are inclined to demonize and dehumanize the members of those other groups.

Perhaps this explains why liberals often depicted President Bush as primate-like, and conservatives currently depict President Obama as primate-like. This reduced contact may predispose elected officials to use demonizing language “targeting” political opponents, labeling them “Fascists” and “Communists.” The Institute created a civil public square for an afternoon, where shared experiences allowed people with very different political backgrounds to bond and recognize that we, as Americans, benefit from listening to each other’s perspectives. Our mission, here at CivilPolitics.org, is to find ways to encourage the growth of this civil public square.

– Matt Motyl