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Pumping civility into our civic culture

September 12, 2013

IOWA CITY, Iowa

Sporting events – even the ones contested by athletes who cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs – enjoy a higher ethical standard than politics. 

“There are referees. There are flags thrown for clipping or offside. You have coaches,” said Jim Leach, himself a former athlete and 30-year Republican representative fromIowa’s Second Congressional District. “No athletic director would hire a coach who said, ‘Don’t respect your opponent.’”

In politics, the closest thing to a coach is a campaign advisor – “and the first thing they tell candidates now is, if you want to win, go negative, because you can’t avoid it,” Leach said. “It is a very different ethic.” 

Leach, who’s now a visiting professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, spoke on civility and politics – and a little about faith matters – on Friday, Sept. 6, at First Presbyterian Church inCedar Rapids. Leach’s talk was sponsored by Intersections, a civility project of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and attended by about 125 people. 

Leach, 70, got his start in public service in the U.S. Foreign Service studying theSoviet Union, a job he labeled “defunct” today, but it was the time in his life when he first began working on arms control and preventing the horror of biological and chemical warfare.

An obvious world hotspot where civility has suffered a “total, utter, complete breakdown” isSyria, he said. “One can make the case that theU.S.has little choice but do something aboutSyria,” he said, a nation whose leader, Bashar al-Assad, has reportedly used chemical warfare on his own people. “But you must ask yourself, could it be effective, will it be proportional? What does it mean to bomb the daylights out of another country? Do we want to be a punisher of first resort, or are we considerate of the rippling effect with consequences we have no idea about?” 

Leach contrasted the just war view of theologian Rinehold Niebuhr with that of his brother Richard, a theologian who argued there was no such thing as a just war. While the two made their points during the lead-up toU.S.involvement in the Second World War, that’s no clear precedent for potential action againstSyria, which he said represents uncharted waters.

“This is a truly seminal week coming up of decision-making” for the Congress, he said. 

If we want to make our politics more civil, we ought to be more careful about the words we bandy about, he said. Critics call President Obama a fascist and a communist, “sometimes at the same time by the same people,” according to Leach, who served in the Obama administration as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. When people talk about seceding from theUnited States, “I consider that a particularly serious word. These are words that have warring implications.” 

For centuries, apparently, the media have played a role making the nation’s discourse less civil. Leach cited the 1800 presidential campaign, when Thomas Jefferson hired a journalist to call his rival, John Adams, a hermaphrodite. “Things were pretty divisive, even then,” Leach said. 

Fast forward a couple of centuries, and what Leach called a “panoply of visual media” now give “legitimacy to views that might be considered a bit stark.” 

With 85 percent ofU.S.House seats virtually uncontested every two years and safely in the hands of one party or the other, the people who occupy congressional offices are increasingly far to the left or right of the mainstream. That’s produced a situation where “our most under-represented group is the majority of the American people, center-left and center-right,” Leach said. “The capacity to reach compromise is more difficult, because many people in public life consider the most important thing their election or re-election.” 

In a question-and-answer session that followed his 40-minute speech, Leach labeled the amount of money now spent on politics by interest groups “a national scandal.” The Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has amped up campaign contributions, “is one of the few times the Court has moved away from pressing for equality before the law. … With that many dollars involved, you have a much greater degree of trauma.” 

Of some states’ efforts to implement reforms including voter identification laws, “I always found that any effort to curtail voting is a mistake,” he said. “My sense is,Americais stronger the greater the participation we have.” 

When a candidate for the Iowa House of Representatives asked Leach if he’d ever seen a civil political campaign, he told her he had, but generally, “the higher the office, the less civil the campaign.”

He said he used to advise candidates that they were entitled to one campaign fib. “I’d tell them to begin every speech with ‘I respect my opponent,’” he said with a smile. “If you do that, it traps you into not being as negative and sets a little better tone for the race.”

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