Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A More Civil Discourse?

In the days since the tragic shootings in Tucson, there has been a renewed concern with the tone and tenor of our political discourse. Some portion of the arm waiving and finger pointing is driven by the belief that the shootings were somehow directly influenced by the violent metaphors present in a dysfunctional discourse. From another perspective comes the claim that there is little if any evidence that even the most egregious discourse increases incidents of violence. The question, in short, seems to be does it matter if our political discourse is, or has become more vitriolic in the current environment?

It can, however, be argued that the tone of our current political discourse is little, if any, worse than at other points in our history (e.g. the secessionist debates prior to the Civil War, the reconstruction era after the Civil War and debates of New Deal programs in the 1930’s), and the tenor of that discourse makes little difference anyway. James Madison, writing as Publius in Federalist 10 recognizes this when he writes of factions. “By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion…” (emphasis added). From his perspective, passion, as a cause of faction, is inherent in politics. It is easy to see how such passion can and does result in outbursts of dramatic, impassioned and even inflammatory rhetoric. To be clear, there is a point when impassioned rhetoric becomes dysfunctional, but the rush to make our discourse civil overlooks an important point. The concern here might be less about the implied or explicit violence in the rhetoric of the day, and more about the content of that rhetoric. That is to say, reducing the volume and shifting the symbolism of our current political discourse will do nothing to make it less vacuous.

Said differently, the concern about the tone of public dialogue misses an important point about the nature of political discourse in a democracy. The important question is not “does tone matter”, but rather, “how does substance and content matter”?

One argument for the importance of substantive political discourse emerges from the logic of market economies, and is compelling because of its consistency with ideas that we’re both intuitively familiar with, and that we believe work in terms of our day-to-day experience. This way of thinking about the value of political discourse can be found in the metaphor that views politics as a sort of Marketplace of Ideas. The Marketplace of Ideas metaphor has a rich history that can be found, for example, in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1919 dissent in Abrams v. U.S. In his opinion, Holmes argued that society’s ultimate good "is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." In other words, political ideas are like products in the market place. Political actors assess the content various ideas in order to determine which is most beneficial to his utility or self-interest. In aggregate, the idea that is best for the community as a whole will win out.

Critics of the Marketplace metaphor, such as Constitutional Law scholar Jerome Barron argue that it contains a number of flawed assumptions. A few of these assumptions are worth noting here:

  • Truth is objective and discoverable, rather than subjective and chosen or created. The sophistication of contemporary marketing efforts demonstrates the extent to which the objective information may be obscured. Similarly, political claims can often be constructed out of values and ideology, rather than being objectively discovered in measurable ways.
  • Truth is always among the ideas in the marketplace and always survives and People are basically rationale and are able to perceive the truth. The ubiquity and effect of claims that health care reform is a “government takeover of healthcare”, as well as the emotional responses to this claim, are recent, but certainly not the only examples that call into question the assumption that the truth survives and that individuals are basically rational.

Under conditions where the truth of political claims and the rationality of political actors are both problematic, the metaphor itself may fall into question. What then, might an alternative be?

Interestingly, if not ironically, the recent, recurring references to the importance of our Constitutional foundations, inadvertently points to an alternative in our own political history: the exercise of reason and the integration of ideas via collaboration (substantive political discourse) rather than either ideological dogmatism or competition (win-loose power politics). This possibility is embodied in the Constitution itself, expressed in the importance of the Virginia and other proposed compromises as influences on the final, ratified text of the Constitution. While it’s true that the writing and ratification of the Constitution was characterized by no small amount of political wrangling, the record of the Convention as well as the Federalist/Antifederalist debate that followed shows extraordinary elegance and substance in its reasoning.

The central idea in this second claim about how content matters holds that ideas are not products, and politics is not a commodity exchange where one idea is selected and all others are left aside. Ideas are not dichotomous, either/or propositions and moreover, many ideas, perhaps most ideas, are not inherently incommensurable. They can be subject to reasoned assessment, adaptation and most importantly, integration. Integration goes beyond simple compromise, which can be characterized as being loose-loose, both sides having given up something of substantive importance. However, the discourse required to accomplish effective integration must be rigorous, substantive and content rich.

The possibility of ideas emerging synergistically from groups has appeared in popular outlets including James Suroweicki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” and William Ury’s notion of the third way. These ideas have a longer tradition practice in American settings, dating at least to Jane Addams and the settlement house movement, and the writing of Mary Parker Follett.

Although any debate between market and integration perspectives won’t be resolved here, what’s clear in both is that content is king. The question remains, is there anything in the current conversation about civil political discourse that improves the quality and substance of its content?

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