If we are going to end the polarized politics of Washington, we may have to turn to the people who are the real experts in rhetorical combat. Namely, lawyers.
Considering that lawyers account for nearly 40 per cent of those elected to the dysfunctional 112th Congress, that may seem like a stretch.
But in fact, the much-abused legal profession could teach us something about how to disagree without being disagreeable.
And it's no accident that the American Bar Association (ABA), the nation's most powerful professional grouping of lawyers, has decided to lead the way.
The ABA's annual meeting in Toronto this week turned out to offer some unexpected hope for a return to national civility. Spurred by no less than one sitting Supreme Court Justice and one retired Justice, the nearly 5,000 lawyers attending the meeting rallied behind calls for a sea change in national political discourse.
“The continuing slide into the gutter of incivility demeans us all,” warned outgoing ABA President Stephen Zack. “As lawyers, we must still honor civility. Words matter. How we treat others matters.
“The way others treat us matters, not only for today, but for generations to come.”
The ABA has seized on one intriguing way to make the change: by persuading the next generation not to take after its elders.
The lawyers' group plans to step up efforts to make civic education mandatory in schools across the nation (it was, once, but many states no longer require it) at the same time as it encourages attorneys and judges to volunteer in schools to lead civics discussions. That would come on top of the so-called “Civics and Law Academies” and special online curricula, called “iCivics, ” that the ABA has developed for middle- and high-school students.
At one of the Toronto panels, the plan got a ringing endorsement from Justice Stephen Breyer and his former colleague, retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Breyer noted that he'd recently compared two electoral maps 35 years apart that depicted counties where landslide results had occurred. The “landslide” counties were colored either blue or red, depending on the winning party; the rest were in white.
In 1976, most of the map was white; in 2011, there were few white spaces visible.
That, suggested Breyer, indicated the increasing “demonization” of American political discourse.
“More and more people are seeing (opponents) as the enemy,” he complained.
“We have to learn how to get on together, and as lawyers and judges we can supply the framework.”
Could the country's highest court really teach us something about civilized discourse?
Despite the conventional wisdom that today's Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, has become one of the most polarized in decades, Breyer thinks it can.
“The justices often disagree,” he said. “But I never heard a voice raised in those chambers in 17 years.”
Justice O'Connor, who retired from the Court in 2006, believes that giving young people early lessons about the responsibilities as well as the privileges of citizenship is crucial.
“We have a generation of young people who have grown up with a neglect of civics education,” argued O'Connor, who is one of the leading forces behind the “iCivics” online program.
One example: she cited a 2005 survey which indicated that nearly half of Americans were unable to identify the three branches of government. A few respondents suggested that two of the branches were the Democratic and Republican national committees.
Considering current events, it's not hard to see why they might think so.
Both Justices called for a new educational partnership between the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to help make the lessons stick.
Skeptics might argue it's already too late for calls to civility—particularly for those inside and outside Washington who are already so entrenched in their opposing camps they have forgotten how to listen to each other.
But there's something to be said for going back to basics with the youngest American citizens.
Perhaps, through them, it's a way of alerting the rest of us to the dangerous road down which we seem to be heading.
Stephen Handelman is Executive Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.