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Can't We Just Get Along? A Dialog On Civility

April 5, 2012 1:09 p.m.

Guests: Carl Luna, professor of political science, San Diego Mesa College

Tom Shepard, San Diego Political Consultant

Related Story: Can We Be Civil, Please? Restoring Civility To Public Dialogue


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Some political pundits say emphatically that negative ads work. Many politicians are in office because of them. Nasty politics seems to be seeping out into the larger dialogue in broadcast, on the Internet, about all conceivable issues. Now a group of San Diegans would like to stop this rude, impolite, and downright nasty talk from becoming the signature of our civic dialogue. They're launching the first annual community conference on restoring civility to civic dialogue at the university of San Diego. Carl Luna is political science professor, and a moderator at the USD event. Welcome back.

LUNA: Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Thomas Shepard will be joining us, a conference panelist. Now, let me start out with a comment that seems to epitomize a lot of what people are talking about when they say our political dialogue is becoming very, very nasty.

NEW SPEAKER: What does it say about the college coed, Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?

CAVANAUGH: That clip is from TMZ, and it's from the Rush Limbaugh show on February 29th, and this remark I assume is the kind of thing your conference will be addressing Carl. Tell us about the genesis for Monday's forum on restoring civility to civic dialogue.

SHEPARD: Part of what's got it started is that civic dialogue in America has become more negative progressively for the last decade or two. I was a panelist along with Tony Perry of the LA Times, and we had a well-received discussion about the need to increase civility in San Diego and nationally. Of from that we've grown to try to do a community project to bring in hundreds of people, community leaders, politicians, candidates, sit in one place on Monday, April 9th, talk about what it means to be civil in society, try to come up with just some basic groundrules. A statement of principle, things that we can agree that we will try to abide by in our civic dialogue. Then we'd like to continue the process to educate the community and try to monitor how well we are making San Diego America's most civil city.

CAVANAUGH: I want to welcome Thomas Sheppard. He's on the line, public affairs and political consultant and a conference panelist at this restoring civility to civic dialogue conference. Welcome to the program.

SHEPARD: Hello, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: In the interests of full disclosure, Tom Sheppard is working for the Nathan Fletcher campaign. But we're not talking about any particular campaign. We're talk about this civility conference. One of the members of your panel Lawrence henman says that Rush Limbaugh's remark crossed the line. What is the line? Where is that line?

SHEPARD: Well, in a campaign context, I've always been guided by the concept that for advertising to be effective and defensible, the messages that you are communicating have got to be fair, accurate, and relevant to the campaign. That doesn't mean that this is no place for negative or comparison advertising. But it does mean that when comparison advertising takes place, it needs to fit into certain baseball criteria of fairness.

CAVANAUGH: The Supreme Court once said they didn't define pornography but basically said they knew it when they saw it. Will is incivility the kind of rudeness that you're talking about the kind of thing that you know when you hear it?

SHEPARD: If it's something being said that you wouldn't want said about yourself or somebody you care for, you're probably crossing the line.

CAVANAUGH: But perhaps -- okay, but what about if someone is really a terrible person and you want the world to know that?

SHEPARD: Our hope is in our democracy, the sorts of people that will be brought to the forefront to represent us have been vetted to some degree that they're not terrible serial killers. There's a presumed degree of respect that you should continue with until you have proven that that's unfounded. Richard Nixon, after watergate, not much respect was given. But even during it, people were talking Mr. President, in a respectful tone of the office. Our first assumption that we are all Americans, we are looking for the good of the community, we have differing viewpoints, and that's where we have to progress.

CAVANAUGH: Tom, as someone who has worked on political campaigns, the idea of who decides when that line is drawn between civil and uncivil dialogue must be of a supreme importance to you. Of who would you be comfortable with deciding where that line is drawn?

SHEPARD: Well, ultimately, I believe the people, the voters are the arbiters here. And I do think that voters understand either consciously or unconsciously when a line has been crossed. I've seen examples over the years, numerous examples where political advertising ended up backfiring and hurting the candidate or cause that was responsible for it simply because voters viewed the advertising in a negative context, and it reflected badly on the candidate.

CAVANAUGH: I want to open this up to our listeners. If you have seen a political ad or heard a political dialogue or actually any kind of dialogue that you think really crosses the line into rudeness and incivility, let us know, tell us what you think. Carl, do you see more incivility in other areas of society besides politics?

SHEPARD: In general as we've become more of a nation of strangers, living out in our suburbs, everybody is in their little niche now in the interietR net, we've retreated into our own little camps. You zooey this particularly in media, where you have conservative media, liberal media, and the two do not meet. And when you have an echo effect going on where all you hear is your own viewpoint, it's much easier to tribalize with each other, and you end up with that breakdown of baseball civic discourse. Civic discourse and civility is all about maintaining the civic culture. When we get ripped apart as a community, we cannot function.

CAVANAUGH: Even using this phrase almost seems wonderful, but it seems a little old fashioned. Remind us what civil discourse is. Why do we want it and what does it facilitate?

SHEPARD: If you cannot agree to disagree and respect each other's opinions, you can't know or begin to find a compromise. Our entire system of government was built on the notion that nobody has 100% lock on the truth. Everybody is a winner at the end of the game so we have a reason to play the game. And if we cannot compromise in our institutions of government, nothing gets done. This is why we have a house, a Senate, and a president, and a court. When you polarize and no longer trust the other side, you don't respect them, people calling George bush a fascist, calling President Obama a communist, we don't have fascists and communists here! But that sort ever discussion really polarizes the debate, and you can't meet in the midterm and figure out how to move forward.

CAVANAUGH: Do you see this going into other aspects like in the classroom, the way your communities perhaps behave and perhaps the way they engage each other in conversation over controversial subjects?

SHEPARD: In the classroom, you can manage things a bit better. Outside of the classroom, you've seen rises in school violence, more result to fist to cuffs to resolve things. You have a breakdown in some of these basic respect issues. An old show, blast to the past, where Brendan Frasier and he was all polite, and they thought he was stuck up until they realized being polite is the way you show people you care and respect them. John Kennedy said we the democrats want what's good for America, the question is how do you get there. We've become more accustomed at talking at each other than talking to each other.

CAVANAUGH: There's been much said that the Republican candidates are not abiding by the so called 11th commandment of Ronald Regan, do not speak ill of another Republican. Have you been surprised about some of the things that's been going on between those candidates in terms of their dialogue and their name-calling?

SHEPARD: Well, surprise, no. I think Carl described the underlying dynamics here pretty well. We are becoming slowly a nation of strangers. And one of the by products of that is that there is little accountability. And it's that lack of accountability, the thing that keeps you from saying something that is so outrageous, you know your friends or family would penalize you for, those constraints are breaking down. The is the Citizens United case, which permitted unlimited expenditures by political action committees, has further accelerated that process because now the candidates are no longer responsible for the messages being broadcast. Most of the messages are being delivered by anonymous organizations that are not accountable to anyone. Of

CAVANAUGH: And it's not just that you go home now after saying something outrageous and nobody yells at you, but it is -- you get praised for that, it seems. You make the newscasts, and you are the topic of conversation the next day. It seems almost recently, are the more sensational your comments become, the more sought after you are as a political figure!

SHEPARD: In the '80s, that movie Wall Street where Mike will Douglas said greedworks? Now it's shameworks. And part of it is is modern media culture where you have a lot of competition for eyeballs, you go with what's sensational. It's like the fast food industry.

CAVANAUGH: With the political ads that Tom talked about, are there's split opinion about whether these are working or not. People say they don't like them, but quite often they seem to turn the tide of a political campaign.

SHEPARD: They can backfire on you, but when Mitt Romney went 90% of his ads were negative against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, it didn't help him in those races. But in general, the overall tone of all the candidates in the Republican side, and I think you're going to see this in the democratic and Republican congressional primaries in their races in the fall, has been more negative. Just for a data point. Ronald Regan in 1980 did not run one negative advertisement. And you different have the super-pacs doing ads instead. Many of the candidates are running 50-75% negative. Negative works. You'll tear down the other guy. But when everybody is torn down, there's nothing to build up and form a community.

CAVANAUGH: And what do you see from your experience of this? What do you see as the consequences for society of this kind of incivility in politics and in general?

SHEPARD: Well, one of the results is declining participation rates. Of and the unfortunate thing about that is that it tends -- declining participation rates accelerate the problem to the extent that the more moderate voices decide simply not to engage, not to participate. It leaves the arena to those on the most extreme edges of the left and the right. And that's part of the reason why we're seeing this increase in partisanship nationwide.

CAVANAUGH: I want to take a phone call. Hi Jeff, welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to make the comment that I've noticed over the past few years that I'll hear on television and different people -- they'll just tell out and out lies. They'll say something that's just blatantly not true. I'm 56 years old, when I was younger back in the good old days, even though I don't believe that, if somebody lied on television or told a lie in the newspapers, then it was shown that it was a lie, their career was over. And nowadays, you hear people just lying left and right. I mean they say blatantly untrue thing, and there's no consequences for it. Nobody calls them on it. And it just drives me crazy.

CAVANAUGH: Let me expand on that. So what is that a consequence of, do you think, Carl, this extreme rhetoric that we have going in this country now for several years, that people feel more emboldened to just say whatever comes into their head, whether it's true or not?

SHEPARD: We used to have the idea that we're entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. Now we're entitled to our own facts. With the Internet, are with the talk radio, the cable channels you can always tune in somebody who will tell you you're right. And if the other side, be they scientists, religious leaders who don't like what they're saying, you can simply tune it out so a lie left unaddressed for 24 hours becomes the truth. That was the old mantra in politics. Now with the modern cycle, a lie left unaddressed for two hours becomes the truth.

CAVANAUGH: What is the aim of this conference? What are you all going to sit down and talk about on Monday?

SHEPARD: We're going to have a very nice panel. We're going to have the first part of the program, the panelists discussing what the issue of civility like we're discussing here, what are the problems, why is this something we're going to have to address? Then we're going to open up, we'll be tweeting and have people speak. And we're going to try to hammer out two, three, four basic principles of behavior that we think people should use as a guideline for how they participate in civic dialogue and politics in their community and schools. And then try to get this out to the schools, get it out to the community and build on an effort where that moderate middle that Tom was talking about who's tuned out because it's so negative will feel empowered to take back the debate away from the extremes.

CAVANAUGH: And Tom, what's your focus?

SHEPARD: Well, I bring a practical perspective to this. I'm on the front lines of these battles every day in the context of political campaigns. And I think my experience in terms of why political campaigns use negative advertising, what works and doesn't, what kinds of constraints the public should consider for this kind of dialogue, I have to deal with that at a practical level every day.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we're out of time at this point, but I want to let everyone know it sounds like an absolutely fascinating idea, that the first annual community conference on restoring civility to civic dialogue is at the university of San Diego. It will take place Monday, April 9th at the Joan crock institute for peace and justice.

GRAUBART: And the public is welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much for speaking with us.