It has been fascinating and instructive to listen to the reactions to this year's winners of the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life. Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were honored last month with the 2013 prize at the National Press Club in Washington. Reaction to their selection has been widely positive. And universally civil. But some commentators have argued that one winner or the other was undeserving.
Such criticism reflects the hard work we still have to do if our political discourse is to become more civil.
Clearly, the long careers of Sens. Feinstein and Graham demonstrate a deep commitment to civility. That commitment, however, was but one of two reasons for their selection. The second reason is that they are proud partisans who strive for civility where it is most difficult to achieve, and where it is most dearly needed -- on the most contentious political battlefields of our day. They have sought to practice civility on issues where our nation is deeply divided. In doing so, they challenge us all to reflect more seriously on what civility really means.
Allegheny's research and study has confirmed what we knew in our hearts -- incivility is rising, political participation is declining, and the two are not unrelated. Yet, while we all lament incivility, we need to do more as a nation to champion civility. And so the Allegheny Prize was created in 2011 to recognize annually two political figures, one liberal and one conservative, who argue passionately but with civility for their beliefs.
The inaugural award in 2012 went to political journalists David Brooks and Mark Shields, in recognition of their long-standing record of civil commentary. In the second year of the prize, the college judged it important to highlight civility at the center of contention in U.S. politics.
Sens. Feinstein and Graham could not be more different. Sen. Feinstein is a Democrat from San Francisco, arguably the epicenter of American liberalism. Sen. Graham is a Republican son of the conservative South.
Sens. Feinstein and Graham have fought vigorously on the issues of their time. Each has engaged controversy and contention and, at times, each has used strong words and practiced tough politics. Yet they share important values.
Both have aspired to always remember the humanity of their adversaries and not to lapse into demonization -- the antithesis of civility. They demonstrate joy in the give and take of the arena, while respecting the dignity of elective office and those who hold it. In the sum and substance of their careers, we find a demonstrated commitment to civility, even in moments of stark disagreement and partisan battle.
At the very moment they stood together to accept the Allegheny Prize last week, they stood opposed on one of the most significant and polarizing issues of our time -- gun control. Yet they stood together in their shared commitment to engage that issue with passion and conviction and with respect for each other.
American politics is a contact sport. Our democracy invites conflict and requires sharp contrasts. No elected official who has made a significant difference on important matters of state has avoided contentiousness. Not just now, but always, dating back to the time of Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton. Each was a civil leader, but each had moments of incivility they later came to regret.
Likewise, our award winners would admit to moments when conviction, passion or political reality has led them to say something they wish they hadn't. Such is a price of meaningful service in the arena. We can herald public officials who strive for civility without expecting them to be perfect. Indeed, if we are serious about civility, we must.
We also must look sharply at ourselves. The more passionate we become about public policy -- the easier it is to reach the subtle but dangerous conclusion that certain public policy positions are inherently uncivil, no matter how they are argued. We saw this ourselves. People we know and respect would say Sen. X's comments on issue Y were incompatible with civility. We would look back at those comments, and in most every instance we would find passion and partisanship, but not incivility.
We all must aspire to retain the ability to seek out and see civility when adversaries are articulating views we regard to be anathema. To do so is civility's true test. That's what Dianne Feinstein and Lindsey Graham seek to do.
If every member of Congress, and elected official in our nation, were to emulate the best instincts of Dianne Feinstein and Lindsey Graham, remarkable things would happen. We would get more difficult work done, there would be greater respect for those who enter public life, and more people would be inclined to participate in politics. That is the power of the example they set. And that is the hope of the Allegheny Prize.
Jim Mullen is president of Allegheny College. Tom Ridge is a former Pennsylvania governor, the nation's first Secretary of Homeland Security and an adviser to the college on the Prize for Civility in Public Life. First Published March 13, 2013 4:00 AM