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Reagan was a Union Member – Visiting his Library as an exercise in Civil Politics

Yesterday, in a strangely appropriate thing to do for President's Day weekend, I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.  When I first got there, I had this idea that I might need to keep a low profile considering my liberal leanings and when I told a docent there that I was from Venice Beach, I projected a liberal-conservative frame upon him, as I took his information that General Electric had given them a grant to bus kids from Los Angeles to the library as partisan gloating, even as I've myself wondered why Republicans care about our president addressing our children.  If I'm honest, there is not much difference and school children should be able to do both.  Perhaps visiting his library is an opportunity to remove myself from partisan frame and try and understand someone with a different worldview than myself.

Perhaps the most important thing I got from his visit is that I realized that Reagan was a far more complex, sincere and likable person than I might have thought.  As someone who actively seeks to promote civility in politics, this was an opportunity to practice what I've often espoused.  I was born in 1974, and so perhaps was too young to have any direct ideas about Reagan, instead relying on the caricatures of his persona from the current political discourse.  These caricatures are map onto the below graph of data where strong liberals report being disgusted by conservatives and believe that conservatives are generally not good people (compared to the midpoint of the scale on a 1-7 disagree-agree scale). Vice versa, strong conservatives may believe that liberal democrats disgust them, are anti-country, and also are not good people.  Note that these effects hold for "strong" partisans rather than slight partisans.

On visiting the Reagan Library, I learned a number of things that add depth to my impression of Reagan as a likable person, even if I disagree with much of his worldview.  Among the things I learned were that:

  • Reagan was the "first president of the United States to hold a lifetime membership in an AFL-CIO union".  While he may be famous for firing the air traffic controllers, who imperiled national safety for fairly ambitious demands, I didn't get the impression that he would resolutely support Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union busting ethos.  Reagan's first political experience was actually in solidarity with students who wanted to strike to protest cuts at their university.

  • Reagan actually was a Democrat in his early career.
  • While governor of California, he actually signed legislation increasing the affordability of homes for low income individuals and funding grants for the disabled, meaning he was hardly as extreme as either liberals who villainize him or strong conservatives who hold him up as an example, make him out to be.
  • Reagan appreciated nature in that he spent a lot of time outdoors in his spare time, and praised the government of Sri Lanka for it's "dedication to preserve God's gift of nature.

Civility does not mean that I have to agree with his policies, but rather that I am open to appreciating that he genuinely meant well for the country, was a good person, and was not someone to be disgusted by, in contrast to the above graph.  Of course, there were many points where I disagreed with the focus of the exhibits.

  • The cold war was portrayed as a struggle between good and evil, whereas much moral psychology would suggest that pure evil is far less common than we might think.  Indeed, while "peace through strength" is a common theme of exhibits, it is Reagan's friendship with Gorbachev, not  force, that ultimately seemed to be the breakthrough in the cold war.

  • Reagan's belief in unrestricted free enterprise and supply side economics seems to me like an exercise in motivated reasoning, in that people don't like to make tradeoffs between helping the poor and rewarding those who produce more.

Still, my overall impression of Reagan was improved by my visit and perhaps a civil thing to do would be for all partisans to visit a presidential library of someone of the opposite party as familiarity breeds liking, and in these hyperpartisan times, we could all use a bit more appreciation for our friends across the aisle.

– Ravi Iyer

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National Institute for Civil Discourse Founded at University of Arizona

In the wake of the Jan.8 shootings in Tucson, AZ, the University of Arizona is opening a new center that focuses on civility in politics.

From The Washington Post:

Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush will serve as honorary chairmen of a new center at the University of Arizona that will focus on civility in political debate, university officials will announce Monday.

Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) will serve as honorary co-chairmen. Board members will include former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright; Kenneth M. Duberstein, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan; Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren; Trey Grayson, director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics; and former representative Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.).

"This institute is the right people in the right place at the right time," said Fred DuVal, vice chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents and former co-chairman of Giffords's finance committee.

The center will be funded with private donations, and $1 million has already been raised, said DuVal, who will head the working board of the institute, which is his brainchild. The institute plans to organize workshops and conferences in Tucson, Washington and elsewhere nationwide, and will bring together leaders from across the political spectrum to develop programs to promote civil discourse.

"Our country needs a setting for political debate that is both frank and civil," Bush said in a statement.

Clinton said in a statement that the new institute "can elevate the tone of dialogue in our country."

Increasing interest in civil politics and in the academic study of civil politics is obviously welcome from our point of view.  As someone whose primary discipline is social psychology, I'm hopeful that we can help the impressive team they have assembled leverage what is relevant in social and moral psychology toward their goals.

– Ravi Iyer



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Rush Limbaugh: “Civility is the new censorship”

Rush Limbaugh recently talked explicitly about calls for civility in the media, saying that "civility is the new censorship".  In a sense, he is correct, in that when liberals (myself included) talk about civility, we specifically mean people like Limbaugh, whose livelihood is based on demonization of the opposing political viewpoint.  I have to admit that when I talk about civility in politics, as someone who views civility as an intrinsic part of their work, I have Limbaugh in mind, not Rachel Maddow, the liberal equivalent (more on equivalency in a bit).  However, perhaps liberals will get further by marginalizing rather than directly attacking people like Limbaugh.

In the wake of the Gabrial Giffords shooting, there is no real plausible defense of incivility that will sway much of the public.  So instead, Limbaugh's basic argument is that liberals are even more uncivil than conservatives.  Below is an excerpt:

RUSH:  President Obama urges civility in public discourse.  F. Chuck Todd is now happily reporting this on MessNBC: President Obama urging civility in public discourse.  When I think of the left wing, I think civil, don't you?  Code Pink, the New Black Panthers, union bosses beating up black conservatives in St. Louis, ACORN, illegal alien marches, why, it doesn't get more civil than that.  The trashing of the Tea Party movement for the last nearly two years, that's civil.  When I think of MSNBC, I not only think of journalistic excellence, but civility, don't you?  That whole class warfare thing, I mean that's nothing but civility on display.  When I think of the counterculture movement of the sixties, I think civility.  When I think of Rahm Emanuel, the man Obama chose as his own chief of staff two years ago, I think of civility.  We don't need lectures from uncivil leftists about civility, much less Obama. Bitter clingers and all the other incendiary things he's had to say, both as a candidate and as president.  

In fact, ladies and gentlemen, isn't one of your complaints that Republicans are too docile?  Isn't one of your complaints that Republicans just sit there and take it, that the left is always on the march, always accusing, always throwing bombs, and the Republicans just sit there and take it?  The fact of the matter is the Republicans are civil, as the left defines it.  They don't say anything.  That's exactly what civil means.  Another couple of examples.  Give your civil reaction to the charge that you oppose Obama because he's black.  Give me your civil reaction to you are a racist because you have criticized President Obama.  Show me how to react in a civil way.  Give me your civil reaction to this: You want to take money from the poor and line your pockets and the pockets of the rich.  You don't care about the unfortunate.  In fact, you and your buddies have created homelessness.  Give me the civil reaction to that.  If it was up to you, we would still have slavery today.  

First, the point of civility is not to get people to "sit there and take it".  Disagreement and debate about policy is healthy.  Rather, as stated on the home page of, "Civility as we pursue it is the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency."  It is possible to disagree on a policy, but believe that others who disagree are not evil, anti-American, stupid, or heartless.  By that standard, Limbaugh clearly falls short and so does much of what goes on in liberal circles, where many liberals do think that conservatives "don't care about the unfortunate" and are either stupid or heartless.  Being clear about what civility means allows us to setup bright lines that Limbaugh and Maddow both cross.  Maybe calling liberals evil or anti-American is uncivil, but so is calling conservatives stupid or heartless, which is more or less what MSNBC does.

The other reaction I have to Limbaugh's passionate defense of incivility echoes the words of David Frum, a prominent conservative, who used these words to chastize Rachel Maddow, who was making fun of Sarah Palin in the below video.  While my policy preferences rest with Maddow, I have to admit being swayed by Frum's specific words that: "The fact that other people fail in other ways is not an excuse for you failing in your way" (see about 4 minutes and 40 seconds into the below video).  The fact that Limbaugh is uncivil does not make it ok for Maddow to be uncivil nor vice versa.


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Frum goes on to talk about how the vocal liberals and the vocal conservatives "have a symbiotic relationship of negativity".  There is much truth in this.  For example, as explained in this article, conservative radio thrives on the idea that liberals want to silence them.  

The take home message for me?  It is time to unilaterally withdraw from the symbiotic relationship that the far left has with the far right.  Frum quotes Ghandi in the above clip, saying that we should 'be the change' we want to see in the world.  I agree.  In Ghandi's philosophy (Satyagraha), you don't win by defeating your opponent, you win by converting them to your cause.  Conservativism thrives under threat (see research on Terror Management).  Instead of demonizing Limbaugh or trying to legislate the end of his livelihood, liberals would do better by marginalizing extreme conservative voices by refusing to cooperate in "us vs. them" zero-sum framing of politics.  Conservativism is strongest when it has an enemy to rally against.  Let us not be the enemy that Limbaugh needs to keep going.

– Ravi Iyer

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You can’t fight a fire with gasoline – a reaction to the reaction to the Giffords shooting.

The desire to increase civility in politics is not new, having been parodied as the cliche-d dream of PhD Poli Sci students and recently promoted by Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, but it has obviously been taken to a new level with the tragic shooting of congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and many others, with politicians on both the left and the right, calling for a less heated atmosphere.

Predictably, the response to the shooting has taken on a partisan tinge, with each side claiming that Loughner, the shooter, is a far-right activist, evidenced by his interest in Ayn Rand, or a far-left activist, evidenced by his interest in the Communist Manifesto.  More indirectly, those on the left have blamed the right for their militant rhetoric, while those on the right have pointed out that the left sometimes uses similar rhetoric.

Some on the left have pointed out that the use of extreme rhetoric is unbalanced, and while I don't think this is necessarily wrong, I think it is a mistake to focus upon, especially for liberals and those who want less divisiveness in politics.  It sets up an "us vs. them" dynamic at a time when all leaders, including Republicans that are sometimes characterized as obstructionist, are open to unity.

Have you ever noticed that liberal churches often have the word 'unity' in their title?  That conservatives want to solve health care by increasing competition across state lines?  That liberals prefer diplomatic, while conservatives prefer military solutions to conflicts?  Doesn't it seem as if Fox News sees purportedly unbiased (e.g. NPR is run by fascists) and moderate (e.g. the Rally to Restore Sanity) entities as greater existential threats than the more obviously opposed, MSNBC?

Liberalism is congruent with cooperation, while conservativism is oriented toward competition.  In social science, linguist George Lakoff shows how conservatives use the language of competition.  In psychology, Morton Deutch's considerable work was inspired by the difference between competitive and cooperative systems and his work can be explicitly connected to liberal-conservative differences.  Consider the below YourMorals data showing that liberals feel less warm towards sports fans than conservatives.

Neither cooperation or competition is inherently superior as there are situations where each is needed.  Sometimes war is the only way to prevent injustice (e.g. stopping Hitler) or competition does lead to greater productivity (e.g. capitalism vs. communism).  However, competitive framing  and divisiveness is likely to increase both conservativism and vitriolic rhetoric (see this page on how competition leads to incivility) and most Americans now say that, at least in politics, competition for office has gotten out of hand, at the expense of cooperation on policy and now at the expense of innocent lives.    We are in a moment when moderates on both sides of the aisle are preaching unity and civility, which should naturally lead to less divisiveness, threatening to marginalize extremists on both sides.  If there is anything that the killer's reading list is indicative of, it is of extremism, not any particular political view. As such, those liberals who are using these events to specifically attack conservative rhetoric, further polarizing debate, are fighting a fire with gasoline.

– Ravi Iyer

ps. if you are interested, here is Jon Haidt's reaction to these events.

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