As a Utahn living in Australia a nation struggling with its own precipitous decline into bitter, divisive political discourse I join wholeheartedly in the recent calls in The Salt Lake Tribune and elsewhere for moderation and civility in our political dialogue. With so much at stake in the debate at the center of our modern public square, we cannot afford the destructive distraction of incivility. Such behavior in the form of rancor, name-calling, or motive-questioning disrupts and demeans the important work of our public officials.
With this in mind, I was drawn to a story in The Tribune last week, which reported on a lecture by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. According to the article, the speakers presented a thesis from their new book advocating moderation in politics and railing against extremism. Yet, it became clear that the authors' real grudge was something quite different; instead of advocating for civility, Ornstein and Mann touted a different "c" word: compromise. And in pressing the specific compromise they favor, Ornstein and Mann's arguments cut squarely against the principle of civility.
The Ornstein and Mann premise was that compromise in politics is a fundamental element of a well-functioning bipartisan system. To illustrate their point, they singled out Utah Sen. Mike Lee, whom they characterized as "an ideologue who exists to impede legislation as a member of the minority party" and "the product of a system that rewards members of the political party not in power for being obstructionist at all costs."
This is the height of incivility in the name of civility. Dismissing Sen. Lee by calling him names or questioning his motives is classic incivility. The notion that only "compromise" is civil, or, conversely, that unwavering commitment to a principled position is uncivil, is inherently uncivil because it declines to engage an issue on its merits.
That is the essence of classic incivility in the form of name-calling and motive-questioning. They smear the notion that on some issues one might honorably take a firm, uncompromising position. If we are to maintain a system of debate and discussion on matters of law and policy, we should be wary of those who slander honorable officials with the courage of conviction.
Doing so in the name of "civility" is particularly galling.
If Ornstein and Mann wish to criticize Lee within the rules of civil dialogue and debate, they must do so without name-calling or motive-questioning. And, importantly, they must also do so without deeming Lee's positions out-of-bounds and unworthy of consideration. Ultimately, their views boil down to the position that hard limits on government spending are unwise. If they want to follow genuine premises of moderation and civility, they should stick to the merits of that question.
By declining to do so and opting instead to berate Sen. Lee and question his motives, Ornstein and Mann engaged in classic acts of incivility. We should not be confused by such hypocritical claims to the supposedly high ground of moderation.
Such pious pleas for moderation are destructive. We should focus on defining principles of courtesy, respect and decorum. Those principles, properly understood, require the truly civil to keep the debate on the merits of the issues rather than soiling that debate with motive-questioning and name-calling.
Not a single example was given of Sen. Lee engaging in any uncivil act. His only offense is that he stands steadfast against spending not authorized by the Constitution or beyond our capacity as a nation to afford.
If we accept the claim that those who disagree with our position must betray their principles to avoid the slur of incivility, we should not be surprised to see public officials surrender integrity in exchange for popularity.
H.E. "Bud" Scruggs currently resides in Perth, Australia, where he is the CEO of The Metal Group. He has been a senior business executive over 17 years. Scruggs served on the campaign and/or office staffs of Sen. Orrin Hatch, former Sen. Jake Garn, former Gov. Norm Bangerter, former Gov. Mike Leavitt and other Utah politicians