Passage of the president’s health care reform legislation has produced a new round of hand wringing about the loss of civility in our procedures for conducting public debate.

From the vituperation displayed at last summer’s so-called town meetings on health care, to shouting out during the State of the Union address, to immediate partisan promises to do everything possible to reverse just-passed legislation, our political process has become increasingly rancorous.

Is this shouting and name- calling and vilifying opponents worse than in the past? Is it the result of an ability to display for the world instant, unfiltered, anonymous messages? Is it the result of a general breakdown of American culture and thus of our democratic experiment?

The pundits and scolds and political historians are having a field day suggesting answers.

Here in Maine, the issue is less health care – though that may come – and more development of our land, consolidation of our local schools and creation of new forms of energy generation.

From a proposed North Woods national park, to school consolidation to windmills on mountaintops or in fishing grounds, vituperation, name-calling and incivility are hardly unknown in our public debates.

Accepting with Lincoln the notion that our form of government is not a given but a “proposition,” and that it is not eternal but an experiment that might not “endure,” it is, I think, important to consider the reasons our public debate has become so unpleasant.

There are, I believe, two reasons.

The first is the tendency to personalize policy arguments: If you disagree with my position, you disagree with me. Disagreeing with me is disrespecting me, insulting me, presuming – incorrectly of course – that I am a bad person. If you disagree with me, I therefore have to defend myself. “I’m not anti-business,” I heard a legislator whine recently, “some of my best friends are business people.”

“Oh, grow up,” I felt like shouting. “It’s not about you, your motives or your friends. It’s about your vote, your position. As a human, you’re of infinite value and equal (in our form of government) to all other humans. But that’s irrelevant. Why can’t we just set aside you as a human from you as a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ on this issue?”

Perhaps the universal self-esteem movement, the “everybody gets a trophy for participation” theories have had long-term consequences on our ability to make collective decisions. Having just spent a morning in my grandson’s first-grade classroom, I’m acutely aware of the limitations of democracy in a room full of fragile egos.

The second reason for incivility, I believe, is the growing prevalence of the conspiracy theory of everything.

In this mindset, anyone with half a brain knows what is really in the best interest of all, of “the people,” of “real Mainers,” of “our way of life.” I know this immutable “public interest” and am out to defend it. And you, slimy opponent, in your heart of hearts, in your quiet, clear-minded, unguardedly honest, private moments, know it too. The problem is that you have or are paid to represent separate, selfish “special interests” that are utterly contrary to the “public interest” I stand for.

Public debate in this context is not an examination of the issues, but a search for your real motives, for the evil “Wizard of Oz” behind your sneaky efforts to slip one by the slumbering “people” I represent and defend.

In this context, the process is not really debate at all. If we all really know what the “public interest” is, then there’s nothing to debate.

My purpose is not to get caught up in the distractions of debate but to uncover the conspiracy, to pull off the sheet and reveal your true sinister purposes. If I can but show your true colors, put you in the unblocked spotlight and shout, “See!” I will carry the day because all those free of “special interests” will recognize the “truth” and rush to quash whatever conspiratorial plot you threaten.

Since the essence of this process is penetrating the barriers of misinformation the conspirators throw up to hide their true motives, it is necessarily personal and accusatory. Again, the intellectual merits of particular positions are secondary to the personal qualities and interests of the people involved.

Voila, more name calling, vituperation and incivility. And plenty of rationale to justify it.

If we are to escape this morass that is making our public process, both nationally and in Maine, so unattractive, if we wish this experiment that our fathers conceived to endure, we must grow up.

It’s not about you; it’s not about me; it’s about us. And for those created equal to make common decisions requires a good deal of maturity.

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]