Sacramento is a remarkably civil place (at least by the standards of this Angeleno). The community of staffers and consultants and journalists and others who work in and around the Capitol treat each other pretty well. For all the politics, there are countless deep friendships and conversations across party lines. Incivility is so rare when people get cross with each other, it often becomes news.
Sacramento is also remarkably dysfunctional. The state is ungovernable. Little of great substance gets done.
So why do we care so much about civil conversations? And why do we talk so much about it?
I’m not sure. And when I’m not sure of something, my solution is to put together people who know a lot about the subject and hash it out. In this case, I’ll be moderating a free, public event Monday, July 16 at 6 pm in San Francisco with the title “Is Civility Overrated?” Experts from Texas to Arizona to, gasp, Berkeley will be talking about how connected civility is to governance.
Of course, talking about civility isn’t anything new. Listen to Gov. Jerry Brown, or Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, or any number of legislative Republicans, and it won’t be long before they use the word “civil.” Reformers love civility; California Forward’s Jim Mayer wrote just this week at Fox & Hounds that an economic summit his group helped put together was successful in part because it produced “civil conversations.”
But there’s confusion about civility too. The problem of incivility is almost always framed, in political context, as bad behavior between partisans of different stripes – Republican vs. Democrat. Civility has become a close cousin, even a synonym, for partisanship.
Of course, some of the least civil conversations we’ve seen didn’t pit Republicans vs. Democrats. They were within the parties; the bitter battles and rhetoric between Democrats over education (and, recently, pension) reform. The “heads on sticks” threats made by Republicans against other Republicans who might contemplate, at least in private moments in the shower, the possibility of tax increases.
If we’re going to get people to be civil, maybe we should be worrying less about cross-party nastiness and more about getting people who actually agree on most things to speak with civility to each other.
Or maybe civility is itself just a rhetorical weapon, hurled by one side to end a conversation or to avoid a deeper debate about real issues. “We can’t discuss this issue – because you’re not behaving with civility.”
Or maybe getting things done has little to do with civility. When one thinks of effective legislators, is civility always part of the package? In this diminished era, one of the best, effective legislators I ever encountered was John Burton. He’s a great man in many ways, but it’s fair to say that civil discourse is not the first thing that comes to mind when Burton’s name is mentioned.
Anyway, it’s well past time to stop talking about civility and to start thinking about it, critically.