Civility Won't Fix Politics, but We Still Need It

On Feb. 3, the day before the National Prayer Breakfast, Christian PR man Mark DeMoss had a 40-minute meeting with Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, and Joshua DuBois, the director of Obama's faith-based office. The subject of the meeting: civility.

DeMoss was an unlikely visitor to the West Wing. The staunchest of conservative Republicans, his most famous client is Franklin Graham, who once quizzed Obama on the nature of his Christian faith. DeMoss worked for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2008, endeavoring to build bridges between the Mormon candidate and the conservative evangelicals who have traditionally formed such a powerful part of the Republican base. And it was this PR effort—the pitching of the Mormon politician to Christian voters—that showed him just how uncivil political discourse had become. "A lot of the attitudes and rhetoric aimed at Mormons from fellow evangelicals, and at me for backing a Mormon, were pretty ugly. And while I couldn't be more different politically from Obama, I was bothered by the rhetoric about him from conservatives and evangelicals and people who didn't like him."

So DeMoss got to work on the Civility Project, which he launched last year and is nothing more than a kind of Boy Scout pledge to be respectful in public, even to political opponents. To aid him in the cause, DeMoss enlisted the help of Lanny Davis, a notorious Democratic spinmeister and onetime chief counsel in Bill Clinton's White House. During the 2008 campaign, Davis had been a ubiquitous surrogate for Hillary Clinton, and after she bowed out DeMoss, who had never met Davis, wrote the Democrat a mash note. "I am a conservative evangelical and a Republican, and I suspect that politically you and I have little in common," it said. But "in an increasingly polarized political context and country, you have always been gracious, soft-spoken, thoughtful and respectful of your opponents."

Davis (who concedes that he has not, in fact, always been a graceful opponent but changed his methods a decade or so ago after John McCain shamed him publicly for his personal attacks on Watergate prosecutor Ken Starr) happily joined forces with DeMoss. "We discovered our common humanity and many other things that we had in common, aside from the fact that we disagreed about almost everything in politics."

DeMoss says nothing definitive came out of his White House meeting this month. But given all that's been going on in Washington—the gridlock, the name-calling—Obama clearly has an interest in promoting civility. In his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama made an explicit call for better manners in public. It may seem like "a relic from a bygone era," he said, but "civility requires us to learn to disagree without being disagreeable." He went on to jokingly rap the knuckles of his critics who insist on perpetuating rumors that he is neither American born nor Christian.

In the DeMoss-Davis vision of things, political opponents are able to admit that they like each other. Political arguments, whether on television or on the floor of Congress, are made and won on the merits, without personal attacks. "It's harder and harder," DeMoss says, "to win a debate on the strength of your ideas and words. That's a dumbing-down of America and political discourse. I'm anything but an academic elite, but Obama is not the antichrist, nor is every Republican a saint. Fox News is not infallible, and MSNBC is not all heresy."

It's easy to agree with all this. Being for civility is like being for honesty, or good sportsmanship; it's impossible to make a case against it. The real question, it seems to me, is this: Would a more civil public conversation get us to where we need to go? If a big alien ship descended to earth and removed Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow from the planet, would Congress finally be able to pass health care?

Davis says yes. "If Obama and the Republicans could be Mark DeMoss and me, we could listen to each other. We would mix and match, and find an incremental solution that may be 25 or 50 percent away from where we want to be. Perfect is the enemy of the good." Bipartisanship is—and should be—civility's ultimate goal.

DeMoss won't take it so far. As an evangelical Christian, he says, he has a vested interest in bringing others to his point of view; he believes the best way to do that is with grace, courtesy, and humility. Civility, in other words, enhances one's ability to persuade and convince. Incivility turns people off. In the political sphere, DeMoss doesn't advocate compromise as much as he does winning debates without degrading the conversation. "I'm not promoting unity. I'm promoting civility. That's not the same thing. I'm not on a good manners kick, though that would be nice. Nor am I about getting more bipartisanship." Fierce partisans calling for fair play: it won't break gridlock, but it's a step in the right direction.