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Volume 27 • Number 4

October 2013



Political Civility: Another Illusionistic Ideal

by Christopher F. Zurn

In May of 2009, President Obama delivers a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, over vociferous protests against his position on abortion rights, that encourages all US citizens to be civil with one another, to approach their political conflicts with "[o]pen hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words." In September of 2009 a member of Congress shouts out "[y]ou lie" during the State of the Union Address. In January of 2011 US Representative Giffords is metaphorically "targeted" during her re-election campaign, and is then shot by a deranged constituent. These are familiar signposts in our nation's latest flare-ups over the tenor and tone of our public sphere. Surely we should conduct our public conversations and controversies on more civil terms, no? What could make us skeptical of such public-spirited homilies after all? It turns out, I will argue, a fair amount—but not enough to warrant stopping the homilies. This paper will try to make the case that political civility is actually an illusionistic ideal and that, as such, realism counsels that we acknowledge both its promise and peril. Political civility is, I will argue, a tension-filled ideal. We have good normative reasons to strive for and encourage more civil political interactions, as they model our acknowledgment of others as equal citizens and facilitate high-quality democratic problem solving. But we must simultaneously be attuned to civility's limitations, its possible pernicious side-effects, and its potential for strategic manipulation and oppressive abuse, particularly in contemporary, pluralistic, and heterogeneous societies.

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ISSN: 2152-0542