Live blog: Can We Talk? event at Constitution Center

This weekend, the National Constitution Center is hosting heavyweights from the worlds of politics, journalism and academe for a two-day event called Can We Talk?: A Conversation about Civility and Democracy.   Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director of news and civic dialogue, has a hand in planning and leading the event.  He’ll be live blogging on the discussion throughout the weekend.

Noon, Sunday – 

The conference has ended.  About 30 participants hung around this morning for eggs, French toast and “History of the Future.”

The latter is a visioning exercise that my colleague Harris Sokoloff and I have used for years in our work with the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.

We tweaked a bit for use with the conference crew as a way of helping them to synthesize all they thought and heard on Saturday, and to give some guidance to the National Constitution Center CEO David Eisner and his staff on possible avenues for followup work.

Here was the assignment given to the participants:

“It’s the year 2020.  The nation is in the middle of another presidential election.  The major parties still disagree and work hard to win.  Issues still excite passions. But people are noticing that something seems different.  The national dialogue – in the media, in political communications, in digital forums, in private conversations – seems to have improved.


When trying to explain how and why things seemed to have changed, many people point back to the recommendations coming out of a conference in Philadelphia, in 2011.


The nation’s premier news source, the digital giant known as The Daily Standard News Beast, has invited some key players in that 2011 meeting to gather again.  The goal: to assess the promising status quo and to explain how the nation achieved it, how it moved away from the ill-tempered situation of 2011.


It’s our job today to identify the key elements of that story.


What is your richly textured description of how democratic dialogue has improved in the America of 2020?   What useful, productive things are happening? Who’s doing them? What are the key reflexes and habits?


As important, how did we get here?  What three or four key issues had to be addressed to create this happier situation?


To address those issues, what did Americans have to start doing? Stop doing?  Keep doing, but differently?  Or simply keep doing? What key obstacles or bad habits were overcome? What key assets were deployed? Who were the necessary players?”


Two breakout groups worked pretty enthusiastically on the assignment for two hours.


We haven’t digested all the results yet, but I can give you some of the flavor from the group I moderated.


Their picture of the better situation in 2020 had a lot to do with youth and education (lots of teachers in the room).   The digital natives who came of age in 2011 changed the tone of discourse because of their strong aversion to nasty politics as usual; the generation coming up behind them got much better civic education in schools, which turned them into willing voters.   Rules for national elections were changed so that most voters felt as if their vote mattered, instead of the 2012 situation where major party candidates wrote off huge states, never visiting, because of the Electoral College system.  And multiple new parties had a fighting chance of winning elections, giving voters a new sense of choice and enthusiasm.


 Civility had been “rebranded” as being about effective government, so that conservatives no longer saw the term as a thin excuse to start bashing them.  And some in the media, responding to perilous economics and low public esteem in which their craft was held in 2011,  had worked hard to create a set of internal incentives to do their job in more substantive, less shallow and divisive ways.


Well, we can dream, can we not?  I’ll have more detail later on the specific ideas that folks proposed for fostering such happy outcomes. 

4:40 p.m. –

After a break, we’re in wrap-up mode, with a town meeting in the Kimmel Theater in the round at the center – with breakout group leaders reporting on how things went.

A few observations on cross-cutting themes:

—  Conservative participants tended generally to be suspicious of the whole framing of “lack of civility” as a key factor in whatever ails our political system.  Their input, in various meeting rooms, tended towards this view:  Democracy is a marketplace, and successful because it is. But marketplaces are chaotic, rambunctious, messy places, where there are winners and losers, and creative destruction is the rule – some things must collapse for others to rise.  

An underlying note was that conservatives suspect that the focus on civility is largely a product of liberals getting whipped in the last election, largely through the noisy, barbed energy of the Tea Party.

John Yoo, law professor and Inquirer columnist, said to me right after the sessions ended, “Sometimes I just get the sense that liberals don’t trust democracy.”

— That said, on one point the viewpoints of the most leftward-leaning voices in the room converged with the conservative ones to a surprising degree:  If the price of civility is dissent being muffled, being forced to bow and act polite in the face of power, then the hell with civility.

Andrew March of Yale, as noted earlier, said it was “obscene” to expect civility of oppressed peoples.

— Then again, civility may be the wrong word to describe what many in the gathering seek – if by civility you mean simply quiet speech, good manners and pinkies up when drinking hot tea.

As Amy Gutmann urged again and again, the key concept is respect.   Can you advocate passionately for your views, critique robustly the views of those with whom you disagree, while still retaining a core of respect for your fellow citizens, as people of good will with whom you share some values, if not all views?

— Laments over the fate and the performance of the media were widespread.  That was accompanied by an understanding that the rapid collapse of old business models, and the equally swift fragmentation of the media landscape, were difficult trends to counter.  Kathleen Hall Jamieson and others wondered whether ways could be found to reward media outlets that behave well – who do fact-checking, who respect audiences, who avoid the cheap and easy path. Still, Dan Okrent’s lament that the splintering of media makes it easier for demagoguery to find its audience (and make a nice living) hangs over this conversation.

— Lee Hamilton’s call for all factions to heal themselves first was well-received and oft-echoed.  The sense was that the task of critiquing, even shaming, poisonous discourse begins with people who share some sense of agenda, party or team with the people doing the wounding acts.  And Jamieson said more of that goes on than is sometimes noticed; she called on the media to be more energetic in highlighting those instances. 

— Another key tension: Moral urgency often draws people into the political sphere. How can you honor that sense of morally driven imperative – without demanding that it “compromise” – but also while preventing it from ossifying into a moral certitude that brooks no dissent and is endlessly judgmental?  The religion group, I’m told, struggled nobly on this point, but I unfortunately never got to spend time with them.  The group, according to its moderator, Erik Owens of Boston College, did suggest that some religious concepts could be useful in bolstering, or even generating, Gutmann’s notion of respect.  Hospitality to the stranger as a core value would be one of those, as would that of stewardship.

— Here’s an issue I think about a lot that got surprisingly little (at least to me) play:  Should there be different rules of engagement depending on power relationships.? (This is of course entwined with question of dissent, of letting oppressed groups make as much noise as they need to be heard.)  But I have in mind something a little broader. Seems to me we might truly want different “rules” for how aggressively, even mockingly, the ordinary citizen can address those in power – particularly elected officials who asked for the gig – compared to how we expect citizens to talk with one another peer to peer.

In other words, go ahead and mock or yell “up,” but don’t mock or yell horizontally or “down” (i.e. the powerful speaking to the people).

The problem with that of course is demonstrated by Sarah Palin, among others. Once a politician gets ordinary folks to identify with him or her, no matter how specious that identification might be in reality, then criticism of the candidate gets heard as criticism of the voter. And it feels hurtful.

Of course, it is the regular strategy of candidates to encourage that specious identification, to treat attacks on them as attacks on powerless citizens; that’s the mode of the demagogue, whether it’s Huey Long, Adam Clayton Powell or Joe McCarthy.

Tomorrow, we get to hash through all this again, in hopes of finding a few, concrete, useful ideas to address the problems identified today.

3:41 p.m.

Ann Fisher is talking about how she tries to respond to people who write incendiary letters back to her, being polite, thanking them, not mirroring the rhetoric.

Gutmann says we should expect media representatives to do exactly that.

Rogers Smith quotes a great political philosopher to cement the point: “As Spiderman said, with great power comes great responsibility.”

3:36 p.m.

Ann Fisher, a talk show host from Ohio, makes a very good point to the ethics/philosophy group about why as, Gutmann has just said, the modern media tend to exacerbate the ills by focusing on the extreme points of view.

She’s expected to run her show, blog, tweet, post on Facebook and to find voices to represent the multiple points of view (not just “both sides”). “So I’m exhausted and distracted,” she says. She says she doesn’t have time to dig as deeply into the real situation as she used to, so she settles for the best she can do, which on any given day is far from perfect.

John Yoo suggests we should celebrate more voices and discussion, more outlets, “without the New York Times thinking it can determine the agenda.”

Gutmann agrees to a point, except to argue that we’ve lost the values and skills of listening, so that we really hear the best point of the other side, rather than just calling them Nazis or Fascists.

3:20 p.m.

On to the ethics and philosophy group – and sure enough Aristotle is being referenced as I walk in.

Clearly, by the joshing going on, there’s been some disagreement about the value of agreement and civility in the room.

“Respect,” Amy Gutmann of Penn is saying, “is not frosting on the cake. It’s at the core of the discourse we’re seeking. Even if I strongly disagree with you, if I have respect for you, we have a chance.”

Andrew March of Yale is worked up: “It’s obscene to demand civility of African-Americans, of gays or any group that is being denied essential rights.”  He talks so fast I can’t keep up, but his point is that it’s a characteristic of authoritarian regimes to insist that all criticism of the regime be very civil and polite.   Being rambunctious and impolite is at the core of effective dissent, he argues.

We are witnessing a very civil dialogue (enabled by moderator Rogers Smith of Penn) between March, who (I’m just guessing) is pretty far on the left, and Stephanie Jasky of FedUpUSA, an anti-bailout investor movement. 

It can be done – even with professors used to captive audiences. 

3:07 p.m.

A historians’ lovefest going on for judge Learned Hand (“the greatest jurist never to serve on the Supreme Court’).    Citations: “Liberty consists of never being too sure you’re right.”

“We rely too much on constitutions, courts and laws to guarantee liberty. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.

3:01 p.m.

Dan Okrent makes the point that the splintering of the media landscape (cable, Web etc.) tends to promote demagoguery, because it means you can find a smaller, like-minded audience that will enable you to make a good living.  Ken Burns adds that the end of the Fairness Doctrine for the major networks compounds this.

Okrent quotes Keith Olbermann, responding to Okrent describing him as a demagogue: “Dan, no demagoguery, no audience; no audience, no show.”

2:53 p.m.

Looking in on the history section, where the theme of the moment is citing New Yorker cartoons to make your point.  

The question on the table:  Is our capitalistic outlook in inevitable and irreconciliable tension with our democratic aspirations?

Oops, moving off that big one to this as-big one:  religion and politics.

To what extent, moderator Richard Beeman of Penn is the mobilization of the evangelical community seen today something new under the sun, or in any way a contributor to the current state of discourse.

Burns, arguing from his National Parks film, cautions against seeing evangelicals as monolithic – since they split on issues now and then. Then it was the need for a parks system to protect God’s handiwork in a spirit of Gospel stewardship.

Here’s a shocker – the history group is tending to spend far more time talking about the past, rather than the present.

2:23 p.m. Peeking in on the social and civic entrepreneurs session.

Discussing what we can learn from the online world about developing systems to reward public civility, and using crowd-sourcing to improve behavior. In other words, what are the equivalents to the registration and comment filtering systems being used at some Web sites to promote civility.

David Eisner asks about the connection between civility and truth-telling.

Wilson Goode Sr. finds watchdog efforts such as to be very useful.

Another participant, Lauren Schwarze, flips Eisner’s question: “I do see a connection between dishonesty and incivility, more so than the other way around.”

Goode recalls his campaign trail days when running for mayor: “Up until two weeks before the election, everyone was very civil, shook my hand etc.  Two weeks out and later, people would turn away. I knew they’d made up their mind not to vote for me. But they were not calling me names, so in a way it was a form of civility.”

Dave Karpf of Rutgers: “Being uncivil is a good way to draw an audience online. Doesn’t necessarily mean you’re damaging the truth. It may just be using outsized language.  But a lot of the discourse on the Web is reactive. And if you think, if you can prove, that the other side has just lied, you might just call them liars. It’s hard to call that untruthful, but it’s hard to call that civility.”

2:20 p.m.   Tanya Hamilton makes the point that many people in the middle, who others have described as less informed, may be of other social classes.  She questions whether they are really “uneducated” or more “at the mercy” of larger powers that leave them without many political choices.

Moderator Michael Hogan of Penn State (sorry to have left him out earlier) asks Michael Schudson to weigh in on this point.

Schudson: “We need to proceed with some subtlety on this point.  The data go way back, the more partisan, the more informed.  But in the last 40 years, we’ve developed more entry points into political activity – through the courts (class-action suits), voluntary organizations, advocacy groups.  We have a flourishing of NGOs and citizen groups; the Internet multiplies that 10-thousand fold (I can’t think of a large enough number).  We’ve also enlarged the definition of the political.  Smoking is now a political issue. How you address people of another issue is now political.  People may engage on those issues, without explicitly think of themselves as political.”

If you’ve never heard of him, know that Michael Schudson is one very smart guy.  His books are all worth a read.

Tony Blankley, who started all this, wraps up: “People get involved when you feel a moral obligation to get involved.  The flip side of that is that you tend to judge the other side on a moral basis.  You see that in Prohibition where a moral view on drinking turns into Protestant bigotry against Catholics.”

Hogan: “It doesn’t have to go that way.”

Blankley: “But it usually does.”

2:15 p.m.  Mona Charen says, “I’m grateful that, by comparison with what we saw, it’s relatively civil in our day.”

Michael Schudson notes that one thing you see in the film echoes a point Lee Hamilton made in the morning panel:  the “wet” Republicans did not much critique or control what the “dry” ones were saying about Al Smith.  Why can’t each of the party caucuses, he asks, take some responsibility for reproving and keeping within bounds members of their “team.”

Hall Jamieson says those moments do occur, but tend not to get celebrated e.g. abortion rights groups repudiating an anti-John Roberts ad; John McCain scolding a person in his campaign crowd holding a nasty sign vs. Obama.

2:09 p.m.  Lynn Novick is talking about a just-played clip from her (with Ken Burns’) film on Prohibition, looking at the links made between Catholicism and alcoholism made during the heat of the presidential race between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover.   (Of course, as Blankley points out, the barbs work on many levels, about immigrants, about urban-rural tensions, regional tensions etc.)

Richard Kilberg, noting that Prohibition was driven out of the pulpit, has many parallels and ties to abolitionism.  Be cautious, he suggests, about simply decrying moral absolutism as leading to incivility.

Finally (I’ve been waiting), he also references Martin Luther King Jr. – as an example of militancy and moral authority that still retained civility and respect for the other.

Siobhan Reardon says she heard plenty of echoes of our current day in the outrageous personal attacks on Smith and his supporters portrayed in the film.  “Painfully familiar.” Why are the attacks made? In part because they work.

1:54 p.m.

Blankley begins with a provocative point. He cites research that apparently suggests that the more educated a voter becomes, the more likely he or she is to be a strongly committed liberal or conservative, that the folks in the middle tend in fact to be in a muddle, knowing little.    A direct shot at the notion that our goal should be a civil, compromise-inclined “middle.”

Mona Charen hops on the point, and questions why we are so eager to have people who know little about issues to go out and vote. Why not enthusiasm for being more informed, rather than just voting?

Jamieson replies by questioning the questions asked to determine voters’ level of information e.g. Does the president have power to declare war?  “Do you want the Constitutional answer, which is no, or the answer from recent American history, which could be seen as yes?” she says.

1:44 p.m.

The assembled, big-brained multitude has broken into smaller groups for themed discussions of civility and democracy intertwine in different areas.

I’m starting out in the media and communications session (typecasting).

Sitting around the table are Kathleen Hall Jamieson, former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, Michael Schudson of Columbia University (by way of Swarthmore), Siobhan Reardon, head of the Free Library of Pennsylvania, columnists Mona Charenn and Tony Blankley, film-maker Lynn Novick, Richard Kilberg of the Fred Friendly Seminars, and Tanya Hamilton, a filmmaker.

Blankley had the first good line of the session about being a watchdogging political journalist: “You go to Washington to drain the swamp, and you look up one day and you’re an alligator in the swamp.”

12:48 p.m.

Compromise, Gutmann said, is “a steep upward trudge.”

Not every person needs to be a compromiser; that would not be healthy either, she says.

But enough people have to have the mindset and the skills of compromise to make compromises achievable in moments when they are actually possible.

New point:  The notion of “the permanent campaign,” the takeover of governing by the campaign mindset – catering to your base, fighting to win, never bending – is a huge problem, she says.   

The uncompromising mindset, she says, has its uses. It makes perfect sense when campaigning, or when advocating a position not backed by the powers that be.  But when it takes over governing, it tends to choke off the skills of compromise needed to govern.

Speech harks back again to Reagan and O’Neill – in 1983, they worked together on the Social Security fix (as big in its way as the one we need now, but can’t seem to approach), and on the Tax Reform Act of 1986.   The old Irish guys knew how to campaign hard, but they knew how to govern pragmatically, too.

12:39 p.m.

The goal, Gutmann says, is mutual respect and shared humanity.

Two challenges: reducing the “excess of polarizing rhetoric in the body politic,” and finding a way to nurture compromise amid disagreement.

Gutmann quotes the old Justice Stewart saw about pornography, in the context of what’s polarizing, “Can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

The benchmark for when polarizing rhetoric is in excess, she says, is when it pushes people out of the shared space where decisions can be made.  Turns people into “disdainful enemies.” Denigrates those who disagree, making it far more difficult to deliberate.

“It’s junk food for the body politic. Consumed in massive quantities, it clogs the arteries of democracy.”  Not bad, but don’t push that metaphor too far, Ms. President.

The antidote to this junk food is “education.” We need to teach kids how to engage with each other over disagreement, she says, without the crush of “character assasination.”

The links between polarizing rhetoric and the failure of political institutions to deal with pressing challenges are clear, she says.

As is de rigeur for a Penn president speaking on Independence Mall, Gutmann is working with words by Ben Franklin, in this case his famous reply when asked in 1776 what those guys inside Independence Hall had given the nation, “A republic, madame, if you can keep it.”

The task of “keeping the republic” is all tied up with keeping polarizing rhetoric under control, Gutmann says.

12:35 p.m.

Gutmann does a review of how sharp and polarizing the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers was, and all the hateful things said about Abraham Lincoln.

Then she reviews some of the lowlights of current rhetoric:

Then: “The question is whether our public discourse is so untruthful, so raw so much of the time, that it becomes hard to see how the public good or could be served by that speech.”

The true test, though, she says is whether our leaders today can work through and past the wounding rhetoric to tackle great questions and achieve great things, as the Founders did, no matter how many names they called one another.

12:25 p.m.

The sandwiches, potato salad and brownies are beginning to digest, as Amy Gutmann, fresh from being one of the 150 women who shape the world by Newsweek, begins speaking.

She cites the example of the relationship between Ronald Reagan and former House speaker Tip O’Neill has an example where partisan differences do not preclude civility, respect and friendship.

11:49 a.m.

Hamilton points out that Ronald Reagan, despite some of the mythology about him, was actually a willing and deft compromiser.

Panel wrapping up.   Up next, Penn prez Amy Gutmann.

11:44 a.m.

Carender, responding to point about corruption, says Tea Party Patriots group is very interested in advocating for transparency and “sunshine” in government.   She is excellent is extolling how important transparency is to democracy.

Well, that then ought to be a place where the progressive lion could lie down the Tea Party lamb.  

Progressives like those in Common Cause ought to take up the offer of increased energy for transparency, without asking the carping question that’s rattling around inside my not totally, completely civil brain: And where was this interest in transparency when conservative White Houses and majorities were spending us into deep deficits?

Down, Chris, down. Stop it.

Tea Party energy combined with Common Cause battle-earned experience in how to make government more open and transparent – that could be a winning combination.

11:38 a.m.

People proposing “C” words other than civility that need to be discussed: compromise and corruption.

“Until corruption is fixed, I don’t seem much hope for civility,” one woman says, but notes that’s one topic where conservative and liberal might be able to find common ground.

11:36 a.m.

Wilson Goode Sr. asking a question; so let the record note that my earlier comment on the whiteness of the crowd not be construed to mean there are no black, Latino or Asian-American faces and voices here.

11:32 a.m.

Hamilton speaks of enforcement of civility as something that each side does within its own number.

Eisner asks whether any self-policing is going on on the Internet.

Palfrey mentions that there’s a diversity of views on that. The Cass Sunstein, “Infotopia,” view is that we’re building digital silos that reinforce our views, harden them, make them more extreme.  Others think the raw variety of voices on the Web make it likely that people will bump across more various views almost by accident, which will increase tolerance.

11:23 a.m.

Palfrey gently, civilly calls Carender on her failure to think her rhetoric through:  “Hey, we all know the past associations of words such as community and socialist as the bad guys, the enemy.  So it’s easy to see how that could be provocative.”

Carender won’t buy it. She’s 31, so she’s not responsible for how people who are older used or reacted to the rhetoric.   

She’s sticking to her position that socialist is not a term of opprobrium.  “It’s an easy label I’m using to people in a box so I can discuss them.”

Eisner makes a nice turn: So let’s not just talk about whether it’s civil. Let’s ask if this way of talking just isn’t effective, if it gets in the way of finding solutions to our big problem. “Is civility just a proxy for our concern that our way of doing things is not fruitful?”

11:14 a.m.

Carender mentions speaking at Mount Holyoke college, and talking to women there who said they had no conservative friends.

“If we don’t know any people from the other side, that’s make it more likely you won’t realize they are really good people with whom you just disagree,” she says.

And she’s totally right.  Each side often lives in a sound-proof bubble these days, where the only news that breaks through, as Carender rightly says, are media reports focusing on the most outrageous, provocative utterances of the other side.

My only cavil with what Carender is saying is that she seems less willing to see that the same is true on her side of the street, and she’s working in a context where many people who have shared her views in the past have specialized in demonizing caricature of opposing views.

She said that when she calls someone who supports Obamacare a “socialist,” she doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. Lots of her best friends in Seattle are socialists, by her reckoning.  “They’re good people, they have good hearts; I just think they are very wrong about some things.”

I take her at her word. But the point is many other people use terms like “socialist” to declare people who disagree with them to be beyond the pale, outside the circle of true citizenship and patriotism.

That’s what we’ve got to stop doing – declaring people outside the circle so that we don’t have to listen to, respect or care about them.

And let’s not waste any more time on arguments over whether both sides do it, who is worse and who started it.

Let’s just stipulate that all sides do it, everyone has done terrible things to be ashamed of, and everyone started it.

And move on to behaving as Carender says she wants people to behave: candid, passionate, but respectful. Knowing that good people of good will can disagree. Passionately.

Sorry. End of sermon. I’ll go back to trying to live up to Hamilton’s beau ideal of journalists who try harder to report, not punditize.

11:04 a.m.

Amazing that it took this long to get to talking about the media’s co-conspiratorial role in the various ills being described.

Palfrey and Hamilton both recount being disinvited from appearing on talk shows because they gave the producers vetting them nuanced, middle-of-the-road positions.

Carender asks why reports of death threats against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, over his battles with public unions, have gone unreported in mainstream media.  First question from Web asks her why, though she loves her country, she hates her government. She handles the question well – saying that is a pastiche of the Tea Party’s views.

Of course, the issue for Carender is that the Tea Party is still an amorphous, diverse entity; a lot of people wrapping themselves in that particular flag say lots of things, some of which she clearly wants to distance herself from.  Her notion that the Tea Party is about those views which she agrees with is a tough one to carry right now; of course, this is equally true about major, coalition parties such as the R’s and D’s.   To be required to agree with and defend all things that all people who share a party label with you might say or do is too heavy a burden for any individual with the wits to think for herself, which Carender obviously does.

10:52 a.m.

Eisner asks, Does the focus on quiet voices only work for those who “already have a seat at the table?”  Does it disadvantage dissent?

Hamilton agrees to a point, but adds, “You have to have both passion and competence.”

Carender:  “But how do you deal with the speaker of the House, a very powerful person, saying that your movement, organized around fiscal issues, say that you are leading to a place like with Harvey Milk, to an assassination?  Why does she never get held to account? … Where are the media, where are CNN anchors, saying after Tucson, when people were blaming the killings within an hour on the Tea Party, wait a second, you’re maligning a whole lot of people without any real basis.”

Hamilton: “I often say, hyperbolically, there are no journalists in Washington. Everyone wants to be a pundit, not a journalist.  Of course, there really are good journalists – but if you want to make a good income, being a pundit is where the money is.”


10:48 a.m.

Hamilton, noting that we’re yards away from Independence Hall, notes that during the debates on the Declaration and Constitution, things got very, very heated.  But word of that robust argument would not get out to the public for weeks, or ever.

“I’m a little envious of our Founding Fathers,” he says.

10:41 a.m.

Tea Party activist Carender: “It’s OK to be angry … but I try to police myself, because that’s how I can be a more effective advocate for what I believe.  … But I don’t see this going away. Freedom is messy and chaotic, and that’s OK.”

Old political hand Hamilton picks up the the thread: “Quiet voices usually have the largest impact. That’s been my experience, and I suspect yours has been as well, that the people who really have an impact on policy are those who present strongly and civilly strong arguments. And those who shout, who storm and rage and flip their lids, when you look around the room, people are dismissing that, saying, that’s off base.”

But, he says, as a public leader, sometimes you adjust to the crowd you’re with. With your partisan base, you might try to stir things up. “But that’s not the forum where decisions actually are made.”

Palfrey says, young digital natives try to have different identities in different places.  “One of the challenges you’ll see in the political sphere, with people speaking differently in different circumstances.”  With videos and YouTube, it’s easy to see the contradictions between how people speak and behave in different contexts.

10:35 a.m.

David Eisner asks one of the key questions to be chewed through and digested for the weekend: Isn’t there such a thing as “rational hostility,” where people who have a strong viewpoint about what’s right, but who are out of power, have a need and a right to speak strongly, with passion, to be heard. In other words, doesn’t dissent have a right to be loud and even angry? And what kind of democracy would we be without dissent?

Lee Hamilton notes that when a person in a position of power, such as congressman, call names or speak uncivilly, they actually lose power.

Carender cautions against “putting free speech in a box.”   Speaks in favor of self-governance, “I don’t call other people Nazis, because I know what a Nazi is.  I think people calling for civility should make sure they are governing themselves first.

Palfrey argues there could and should be a uniform standard for the basic level of civility we owe each other.  “Most of the ways we get to civility are not imposed by Congress or the courts, but we find them in ourselves,” he says.

10:30 a.m.

Panelist John Palfrey, a Harvard prof who studies Internet discourse, mentions something we’ve all done: Hit “send” on an unkind, intemperate email we should never have sent, because it includes things we would never have said to the person face to face.

Also notes that part of the conversation is about what’s going on with young people who’ve grown up in the digital word – “cyber-bullying,” for example.

Joked that he thought he was hear “speaking for the Internet,” but after hearing Tea Party blogger Carender, he realized he was here representing “academic elites” as well.

10:22 a.m.

Opening panel underway.  Lee Hamilton, former Indiana congressman, says argument is a wellspring of democracy, but said for an argument to happen, each side at least has to listen to one another.

There is line, he says, between robust argument and demonizing that the public should insist its politicians observe.

Keli Calender, Tea Party activist, speaks of having been an “undercover” conservative in liberal Seattle, who used to “never say anything” when their character and beliefs were smeared. Believes the discussion of civility is arising because Tea Party activists are speaking up now.  “Academics, elites, want to have this conversation now because the scary, scary Tea Party has decided to speak up.   Hard to believe we’re talking about civility now after I and others in Tea Party have been maligned and impugned.”

David Eisner, CEO of NCC, asks Calender if she feels like she’s being told to sit down and shut up by those calling for civility.

“Yes, absolutely.  I’m a little cynical about the call for civility.”

10:15 a.m.

Jim Leach, former Iowa congressman and current head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, provides the opening remarks, and does it well. Some of what he said.

“Here’s the main difference between George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  President Bush was called a fascist.  President Obama was called a fascist and a community, sometimes at the same time by the same people.”

Some say, “What’s wrong with a bit of hyperbole,” he noted.  Well, it’s wrong if it’s used to frame all opponents as enemies.  Shouting, he said, does not bring out diverse ideas; it squelches them. 

“If you ask more people in this country if they are concerned about political rhetoric, in terms of intensity of feelings dividing Americans, there is an extraordinary consensus of concern.”

Leach conceded that other periods in the nation’s history have been “less civil and more divisive.”

“But rarely has the country had more reason to come together,” he concluded.  “Lincoln said, ‘A house divided cannot stand.’  I’d add to that, a country splintered the way we are today cannot reach its full greatness.” 

9:55 a.m. Saturday

Folks are filing in to the Kirby Auditorium here, waiting for the opening session.  Saw Lee Hamilton, former congressman and member of the 9/11 commission, and Dan Okrent, former New York Times ombudsman and author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  He’s the main interviewee in the new Ken Burns historic epic, Prohibition, which was screened here last night.

The group, it must be observed and conceded, is verrrrrrrry white.  

There is a school of thought that the whole focus on civility as a needed trait of democratic conversation is very much a white, educated, middle-class preoccupation.

6 p.m. Friday

The event begins tonight with a preview of Ken Burns’ new historical extravaganza for the Public Broadcasting System, “Prohibition.”

Burns is scheduled to take part through the weekend. Other notable names on the guest roster include: former congressmen Lee Hamilton and Jim Leach, Jim Leach, well-known journalists and commentators such as Mona Charen, Tony Blankley and Daniel Okrent, Tea Party blogger Keli Carender, and scholars such as Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Alan Brinkley and Michael Schudson.

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and a noted scholar on civil deliberation, will be the keynote speaker on Saturday. The afternoon will be devoted to in-depth explorations of the interplay of civility and democracy throughout history.

A public event will be held at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in the center’s theater in the round. Billed as a Town Hall Exchange on the topic, it will be moderated by Hari Sreenivasan of the PBS NewsHour. Tickets are required. Reserve your seats at 215.409.6700

Sunday I’ll be leading the group through an exercise called History of the Future (based on ideas developed at the Center for Applied Research at Wharton), which will ask the group to imagine a United States of the year 2020 where the goals of this conference were being put successfully into action. They’ll be asked to describe that very different nation and different political dialogue, then to write the “history” of how that future came to be.

The event is being underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities, of which Leach is now the head.

Disclosure: The Constitution Center is paying the author for his work in helping to plan the event.

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