The Struggling Emergence of a New Civility

Our politics are incredibly toxic, and at times conditions only seem to be worsening. But look around and it’s possible to see the emergence of a competing set of conditions – what I’ll call the New Civility. I say it’s “new” because the old civility is about people holding hands and singing Kum-by-yah. We’re in need of something more potent and realistic. One signal of this “new civility” is Republican Jon Huntsman’s recent announcement that he was running for president. Huntsman has gone to great lengths in setting a decidedly productive tone for his candidacy. He is upfront and clear about his differences with President Obama, while pointing out that he doesn’t question the president’s love of country or commitment. They simply disagree on a host of issues and governing philosophy.

Of course, many Washington pundits and news media outlets have questioned the seriousness of Huntsman’s approach, saying he is running only on style and not substance, and that he will be eaten alive by his tougher, and nastier Republican opponents. Or put another way, those who were better equipped to play by the rules of toxic politics.

But Huntsman is not alone in his approach. One can feel any number of political leaders seeking to move toward a New Civility, including at times House Speaker John Boehner and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Just yesterday Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined in, calling for political leaders to “work across the aisle.” For me, the latter example is a sign of Romney reacting to the pull of the new civility and hedging his bets. But it is telling that he feels pressure to do so, and suggests there is a growing power around the idea that we need a different way of working together.

Now, I can hear many of my friends getting antsy, even downright uncomfortable with me saying these things. But, wait a moment, please! It’s clear to me that our dominant political narrative right now is one of division and acrimony, self-dealing, and self-promotion. I get that. Yesterday’s conviction of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is Exhibit A in politics run amuck.

But, change comes about when there is an emergence of a competing narrative, which grows out of nascent pockets of change that point to the possibility of a different path. We are seeing the early signs of such pockets, and the early emergence of the new, competing narrative that reflects them. I’m not naïve, I know these signs aren’t the dominant story, but to deny their existence is to enable the growth of further cynicism and to forfeit the opportunity to change course.

The substance of the New Civility is not reflective of the civility movement of the past ten or fifteen years, in which proponents adopted the oft-repeated Rodney King refrain: “Why can’t we all just get along!” The new civility is not about being friends, or “liking” each other.

Rather, it is about building respectful relationships so things can get done. It is where tough issues are put on the table, and where philosophical differences are not washed away or diminished, but understood and worked with. The New Civility is one where our opponents are not evil, but where there is a real battle to win the debate. It is where tough choices must be made, and where real trade-offs exist. It is where “progress” and “hope” are earned only over time, based on the hard-won renewal of belief that we as individuals and collectively have the ability to get things done.

Seizing on this new civility will require us never to lose sight that we are engaged in a competition between the old and new – and that we must strategically target opportunities where existing, nascent pockets can be strengthened, and new ones created. We must place a spotlight on emerging victories, and not lose spirit when current conditions prevail. And we must remind ourselves that amid toxicity and destruction there is the opportunity to grab hold of real hope.