Striving for civility in political discourse

From left to right: Dr. Robert Prescott, chair of the English department, participates in a panel discussion with Dr. Jackie Hogan, chair of the sociology department, and Frank Mackaman, director of the Dirksen Congressional Center.

April 17, 2013

By Frank Radosevich II

Rancorous rhetoric and fervent partisanship seem to be the norm for today’s political environment. But a push for promoting civil public discourse was underway on Bradley’s campus.

The University’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service hosted a half-day symposium examining the causes of hyper-partisanship and promoting constructive communication, collaboration and leadership in government.

“Our belief is that we can’t address any important public policy issue unless public officials engage in more civil, substantive discussions,” said Brad McMillan, the institute’s executive director. “We’ll continue to have a stalemate until we change the style of public discourse that takes place.”

Attending the seminar were students, faculty, community members and politicians, both newly elected and seasoned veterans. Topics ranged from how campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, 24-hour media coverage, structural changes in Congress and demonizing groups can all create barriers for civil discourse.

“The words and images we use in our public discourses do matter,” Dr. Jackie Hogan, associate professor and chair of the sociology department, told the audience. “They have real, material affects that can shape the political process and social justice for better or for worse.”

The symposium featured noted experts from the field of politics and beyond, including Bradley’s own Dr. Hogan and Dr. Robert Prescott, chair of the English department; Jonathon Miller, co-founder of the No Labels movement; Mickey Edwards, former congressman and director of the Aspen Institute-Rodell Fellowships in Public Leadership and keynote speaker Jim Leach, a former congressman and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Dr. Prescott, who participated in a panel discussion with Dr. Hogan and Frank Mackaman, director of the Dirksen Congressional Center, spoke on why words matter in politics. He stressed how listening and talking to people with opposing views could foster more understanding and civil debates. He added that classrooms should be just as welcoming to alternative viewpoints as the political arena.

"It's through words that we grow our empathy," he said. "We need to be held accountable to have classrooms that are open and tolerable."

McMillan said it was important for students attending to learn about a different way of governing other than political infighting, especially since many of them have only been exposed to the world of hyper-partisan politics. As America’s next generation of civil servants, students should be encouraged to usher in more civility in public discourse.

“The students will be the country’s future leaders. They need to understand how to make change happen in the political realm,” McMillan said.

Megan Ramlo, a junior studying history and secondary education who attended the symposium, said she was touched by the speakers’ emphasis on understanding and sharing someone else’s perspective. Considering a career in teaching, Ramlo said the importance of civil discourse goes beyond politics and reaches into the classroom.

“It doesn’t have to relate to politics and parties. It can relate to your workplace or interacting with people who have opposing viewpoints,” she said. “We need to learn how to listen to them, be empathic and take into account what they are saying before trying to reach an agreement.”