Does political incivility go hand-in-hand with change?

Mar 4, 2011

A national conference in Spokane focuses on something a lot of people fear is dying out: civility in American politics. Many see the January shooting in Tuscon as just one sign that the nation's civic discourse has been replaced with mudslinging, threats, and even violence.

Spokane itself was shaken by backpack bomb discovered along the route of a Martin Luther King Day parade.

But consider this: Incivility can sometimes play a positive role in democracy, at least according to some experts.

A History of Incivility

True, it's easy to think back to the good ol' days, the Golden Age – that time when American politics were rational and well-mannered. Right? 

"I don't really think the Golden Age ever existed," says Michael Kazin.

Kazin is a history professor at Georgetown University. He's a speaker at the "Civility and Democracy in America Conference" in Spokane. It's one of four conferences this month sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The others are in L.A., Philadelphia and Chicago.

Kazin says American history is full of incivility similar to what we're seeing today, and worse:

  • duels between politicians
  • a caning on the floor of the U.S. House
  • A journalist working for Thomas Jefferson once compared John Adams to a hermaphrodite

In the 1930s, Kazin says the Liberty League called FDR a communist, just like today the Tea Party calls President Obama a socialist:

"One of the things about democracy is that it's often messy and dangerous. And that is both its peril and also its promise because out of that messiness, out of that hurlyburly, can come some really good solutions if people are free to say what they really think," says Kazin.


Spokane Bomb Scare Sparks Renewed Race Dialogue 

On the eastern end of Washington state and in North Idaho you could say things have been made "messy and dangerous" by racial extremism.

And it’s an issue that still boils below the surface, as can be seen from a meeting of the Spokane branch of the NAACP.

"Unless we speak about some things that are unpleasant, we're not going to get anything done," says Ryan Holmes.

Holmes is a Spokane business owner. The NAACP organized this meeting after city workers found an unexploded backpack bomb on the Martin Luther King Day parade route. Even though emotions ran high, NAACP chapter president Vianne Smith made sure this conversation remained civil:

"And when we leave here tonight, we are going to have an action plan on how we are going to handle racism within our community."


Against a Backdrop of Northwest Racism

The failed bomb in Spokane was a reminder to this community of the former Aryan Nations compound cross the Idaho border. The image of the area as a haven for white supremacists has stuck, even though the group went bankrupt and left the Idaho panhandle a decade ago.

Yet it is that very history that may play an unexpectedly positive role now. At least that’s according to Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group that defeated the Aryan Nations in court:

"Look, who knows more than Northern Idahoans the carnage the criminal violence and the real visceral hatred that comes out of these groups. I think today the area is better prepared to deal with this kind of thing and I think that comes directly out of the historical experience."

Potok says, in the early days, local leaders tried to ignore the Aryan Nations, figuring a response would bring bad publicity. But by the '90s, North Idaho's tactic changed.

Political scientist Cornell Clayton heads the Foley Institute at Washington State University. It's the sponsor of the conference on civility in Spokane. He recalls watching Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler and his followers march through downtown Coeur d'Alene:

"And if you ever saw Rev. Butler and his followers it was this ragtag small group of really desperate looking individuals, and it was almost pathetic. And the parade route was lined by far, far more people protesting. It was striking to see the contrast."

These days, one of the first things visitors see when they enter downtown Coeur d'Alene is a big brick building that houses the Human Rights Education Institute. Members of the county task force that helped defeat Butler now act as civil rights consultants for communities in other states. It's an unusual specialty for a Northwest town.

Still, many in the region's minority community say racism persists here, even if its not as loud.

Thirty year old Anthony Walters was in high school in Spokane when Butler's group was at its height. He worries some people are have forgotten, or want to forget, that legacy:

"I read a comment in one of the articles in response to the MLK bombing, something to the effect that 'We didn't think it would happen here. It was a shock it would happen here.' But I don't think any person of color would be surprised that it happened here. Any person of color that has grown up in this community, any ethnic minority would recognize this history that we have."

After all, the case of the Spokane backpack bomb remains unsolved. And within the last few years a spin-off Aryan Nations group has emerged in North Idaho, even as the area has diversified. Last year they made a failed attempt to move into John Day, Ore. The group has recently been seen in Coeur d’Alene, picketing taco stands.