Reward civility: Cursing the coarseness of political debate is not enough

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We all lament the rise of incivility in our democracy. Allegheny College is launching a quest to reverse it.

Today, at the National Press Club, I will award the first Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life and am pleased to announce the recipients here in the Post-Gazette -- a publication with a long record of advocating and exemplifying civility -- as I urge others to join us in this effort.

Why is Allegheny College tackling this issue? Because civility has been part of our culture from the beginning.

In our archives is a handwritten letter from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson graciously commends Allegheny College's library collection -- and expresses hope that someday his University of Virginia would have a library to rival Allegheny's. It was an incredibly gracious act. We have tried to honor that example ever since.

We study political civility through our Center for Political Participation, led by Dan Shea, a leading political scientist. The center's findings are ominous for all who care about democracy.

Our national surveys confirm what we all suspect -- that perceptions of political civility are down and declining. These perceptions are having a negative effect on political participation, particularly among the generation that will inherit our democracy. As a college president, this is my greatest concern.

Today's young people are extraordinarily service-oriented. Allegheny's 2,000 students last year contributed nearly 60,000 hours of community service. Yet while volunteerism is up among young people, political participation is down -- way down.

Consider this: Despite a high-stakes presidential election, only 1 percent of eligible voters under 30 participated in the recent Nevada Republican caucus.

Most worrisome for me is that incivility will cause fewer and fewer young people to seek a career in public service. I worry we are at risk of losing an entire generation to public service -- with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Incivility threatens the long-term health of our democracy. But the harsh truth is, we're not doing anything serious to change it. Instead, incivility is too often rewarded. And civility is usually taken for granted or ignored.

If we're serious about enhancing civility, we must shine a bright light on the unsung heroes of democracy today -- the many women and men who practice partisan politics passionately but with civility, each and every day. Civility will become a norm only when rewards for civility become a norm.

Our effort starts with a civility prize. It was striking to us at Allegheny that, for all the gnashing of teeth around incivility, there is no recurring national award to honor the civil.

Civility may be insufficient today. But it is not dead. And we exacerbate the problem by failing to laud it.

The recipients of the inaugural Prize for Civility in Public Life are two of the most respected political journalists of our time, David Brooks and Mark Shields.

Every week Mr. Brooks and Mr. Shields come together on "PBS NewsHour" to vigorously debate the issues of the day, respecting each other as they do so. They demonstrate that civility does not require one to be tepid. Mr. Brooks proudly argues from the right; Mr. Shields from the left. But they advocate their views with steadfast civility. It will be an honor for me to bestow this award upon them today.

We purposefully chose two journalists for the inaugural award. Journalism, too, is deep in Allegheny's 200-year-old DNA. One of the nation's original investigative journalists, Ida Tarbell, was a 19th-century Allegheny graduate. We know from that heritage, and from our study since, that it is journalists who largely set the tone and the boundaries for political debate.

Tomorrow, I am sending a letter to the political journalists of America, calling upon them to join us in this effort. Journalists do an exceptional job of "calling out" those who commit blatant acts of incivility. But if we hope to change the climate, we must not just discourage incivility, we must encourage civility.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge -- a member of our civility prize advisory panel and a bright light of civility in his own right -- told me that he hopes to help make the civility prize an award that every politician, public servant or opinion-maker aspires to win.

Journalists can do the same -- by regularly and systematically recognizing those whose daily political and governmental work reflects the better angels of our nature.

If every political blog and website and newspaper and broadcast were to do so, if each was to commit to regular reporting on the unsung heroes of civility, then something special could happen. Politicians might actually be inspired to choose civility.

But each of us must do our part.

Voters must make civility a prominent factor in their election-day decision-making. Campaign contributors must do the same as they write checks. Special-interest groups must consider civility, as well as self-interest, in making endorsements.

Civility is a choice. We must help public servants and candidates make that choice. Until we do so, we are part of the incivility problem -- no matter how politely we sit on the sidelines.

James H. Mullen Jr. is president of Allegheny College, a liberal arts college located in Meadville, Pa. More information about the school's civility projects can be found at . First Published February 21, 2012 5:00 AM


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