Tag Archives: young people

Civility, Civic Literacy and Public Service

There is a robust debate underway about what it will take to attract the best and brightest of our young people to public service. As someone who has taught public affairs for 15 years—and with several years of government service in my own background—I have a theory that I would sum up as “civility, civic literacy and a meaningful opportunity for service.”

By “civility,” I mean a collegial and supportive workplace in which partisan political considerations take a back seat to achievement of the common good. By “civic literacy,” I mean familiarity with accepted understandings of America’s history and constitution. And by “a meaningful opportunity for service,” I mean an approach to administrative practice that balances ends and means in pursuit of the public interest.

There was an interesting symposium on political civility in a recent academic journal. The articles wrestled with confounding questions: what is the difference between argumentation that illuminates differences and rhetoric that “crosses the line”? The consensus seemed to be that incivility is rudeness or impoliteness that violates an agreed social standard.

I’m not sure we have agreed social standards in this age of invective, but surely rhetoric that focuses on, and disrespects, persons rather than positions should count as uncivil. (An example of civility in political argument might be Dick Lugar’s often-repeated phrase “that is a matter about which reasonable people can differ.”)

One of the most trenchant observations came from a professor who attributed the gridlock in Washington and elsewhere to “partisan one-upmanship expressed in ways that do not show respect for those with differing views.” In other words, if your motivation is simply to beat the other guys–to keep the President from a second term, for example–and if that motivation outweighs any concern for the public good, civility is absent and governing is impossible.

The reason politicians no longer “respectfully disagree” with each other, the professor pointed out, is that they do not in fact respect their opponents. For a variety of reasons, they hardly know them, and it’s easy to demonize people you don’t know.

Add to that an even more troubling aspect of today’s politics, a lack of civic literacy abetted by disregard for fact and truth and enabled by partisan television, talk radio and the internet. Survey after survey shows that people on the left and right alike get their “news” from sources that validate their biases. Worse, we have lost much of the real news, the mainstream, objective journalism that fact-checks, that confronts us with inconvenient realities. In such an environment, it becomes easier to characterize those with whom we disagree as buffoons or worse, unworthy of our respect. It is easier still if we lack even an elementary grounding in the origins and philosophy of American government, a lack confirmed by one dispiriting survey after another.

There is ample research confirming the existence of a worrisome civic deficit. I have reported much of it in this blog. If nature abhors a vacuum, as the old saying has it, it should not surprise us that citizens accept the spin and outright fabrications of the pundits and “talking heads” who have political axes to grind.

When political discourse is so nasty, and regard for truth so minimal–when the enterprise of government has more in common with a barroom brawl than a lofty exercise in statesmanship–is it any wonder that so many of our “best and brightest” shun politics? Forget elective office–who wants to go to work for a government agency the very existence of which is regarded as illegitimate by a substantial percentage of one’s fellow-citizens?

Americans have spent the last thirty plus years denigrating the role of government and the value of public service to an audience ill-equipped to evaluate those arguments. Now we are paying the price for our neglect of civic education and our unwillingness to defend the worth of the public sector.

Americans have a bipolar approach to issues: it’s either all good or all bad. But government is neither. We don’t have to abandon critical evaluation of government’s performance, but we do need to remind citizens of government’s importance and value.

I firmly believe in the line from Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come. If we rebuild civic knowledge and respect for civility and public service, young people will answer the call.