National Institute for Civil Discourse

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The UA School of Government and Public Policy is home to the new National Institute for Civil Discourse. Learn about the Institute from its director, Brinton Milward.

Ted Simons: University of Arizona is home to the national institute for civil discourse. The institute was formed after the Tucson shootings that claimed the lives of six people and injured 13 others, including congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The institute will try to provide a counter balance to what many see as the mean spirited rhetoric that seems to be a growing part of our political system. The institute boasts an impressive board of directors that includes Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and General Colin Powell, Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton serve as honorary chairmen. The idea for the institute came to Fred Duval, member of the Arizona board of regents, after President Obama gave a speech in Tucson days after the shootings.

President Barack Obama: At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized --

Fred DuVal: Although the Tucson shooting was not caused by politics, it did give us a teaching moment to say, maybe our culture and our political life really has gotten to a point where it's destructive to the democracy, where our ability to engage in conversations that can move people of different points of view to a common American bipartisan outcome has been lost. And you see that in Washington. Congress isn't incapable of solving problems, and that's because all the political rewards in the political system are extremist oriented. The incentives are to shout, to demean, that's where the media incentive is, where the fund-raising is, the political base response is. And the purpose of the institute in a word is to try and create a counter balance where we can't control what anybody speaks. It's the first amendment issue. But we can create political reward for speaking in more measured tones, reaching across the aisle, and change the political calculus in the choice of vocabulary.

President Barack Obama: It's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.

Fred DuVal: It really was inspired by Obama's speech, and by the discussion that was taken around the country, there was a lot of conversation, is this a calming moment, will this change politics? And I thought that day and a number of other people agreed, it may change. But in order to make the change, sustaining and permanent, it may need the injection of the moral authority of people of both parties and journalists, which is what we put together on our board. To either call people out of bounds when they are really over the edge, or to create examples and positive incentives for people who are showing really positive constructive and I would even say patriotic behavior.

Ted Simons: And joining me now is Brinton Milward, the director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Milward is also the director of the University of Arizona's school of government and public policy, which houses the institute. Good to have you here. Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: We just heard from Fred. I wanted to ask you, maybe from a different angle, why is this institute necessary?

Brinton Milward: Well, I think institute is necessary because we've come to a place in the United States where we've stopped listening to one another. That it's not just enough to oppose ideas, but we have to oppose individuals that propose them. And one of the things you have in a democracy is if you are a democracy, you have to grant other citizens the right to say what they believe. And I think we just need to remind people of this. This is something that there's a first amendment. You can say anything you want to. But one of the things that we view our mission as, is serving as an advocate for people who want and respect facts, people who want to listen to their opponents, even though they desperately disagree with what they say.

Ted Simons: The idea that the Tucson shootings inspired this, and I think Fred said the Obama speech, President Obama's speech was there as well, critics will say that civil discourse has nothing to do with those shootings. How do you even get past that starting point?

Brinton Milward: I think you -- there is no evidence that it did. I think what it did was open up a space for conversation. We've come out of some incredibly very, very difficult electoral cycles. If you take a look at the Giffords shooting, one of the last things she did before she was shot was she sent an email to Trey Grayson, who had just lost a bitter campaign in Kentucky, to Rand Paul in the Republican primary, and she said I've been through a terrible campaign, and I know you have too. We've got to do better. We've got to find ways to reach across the aisle, in which we can collaborate for the long run good of the country. It's very difficult to have winner take all politics and then you throw the bums out, and then it just starts all over again.

Ted Simons: So how do you create political reward for measured speech? How do you do it?

Brinton Milward: I think that's -- that is a very, very good question. One of the things we have -- that's happened because we have a -- two former presidents as head of this institute, we have got organizations all over this country who are calling us about 100 different organizations of have contacted us, many working in conflict resolution, some of them working on curricula in schools to promote civil discourse, civic engagement. One of the big problems we have is just people not being engaged in the political process, so only the activists on the extremes are involved. And so one of the things we hope to do is to be able to use our bully pulpit with our presidents, with Justice O'Conner, Tom Daschle, former senate majority leader, and others who are on the board like Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, to use that as a way to really call this country back to - let's focus on governing. That's what it's all about. It's not just winning and losing, it's governing a great democracy.

Ted Simons: I can already hear the criticism that this is artificial. This is pushing the boulder up the hill, needlessly. People right now, their mind-set the way they live life, the way America is right now, talk radio and cable TV news networks and the whole nine yards, right now that kind of vitriolic speech seems to be what draws people and is what interesting people in the political process. How do you get past that?

Brinton Milward: It's a very interesting question. One of the things that we have, because this is at a University, we're looking at a number of things from a research standpoint. There are about 50 different scholars that have come together, some are looking at the organization of the media industry, and I had an interesting call from the White House reporter for Fox news, right after the announcement that the institute was created. And he said, so, Professor Milward, if your institute is successful, then business models like ours won't work. And I said, not necessarily. You'll create a new business model. One of the things about industry, business models work until they don't. General Motors had a great one until it didn't work anymore. You have to take a longer view. Other people say, well, times in history have been worse. Look at cane cans on the floor of the senate in the 1850s. There's some pretty vitriolic rhetoric too. The answer is yes, we had a civil war to end that.

Ted Simons: How do you differentiate between impassioned speech and the kind of vitriol you want to see disappear from public discourse?

Brinton Milward: That's a really great question Ted. I think one of the things you have to -- civil discourse is something you note when you see it. Like when Justice Stewart said of pornography, you know it when you see it. You want to create a debate around what is and what is not civil. What's in bounds and what is not? And I think that's one of the things, we have a forum to do that with the kind of attention we're getting. We're going to have meetings in Washington. In September we'll have a national meeting in Washington. We would like to work with groups in Arizona in this area. And we're going to have an inaugural conference in Tucson in January, probably late January of next year.

Ted Simons: Last question. Does it seem as though the rhetoric has cooled a bit since the Tucson shootings?

Brinton Milward: You know, that's really an interesting question. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that it has, and I talked to a person yesterday who is in charge of an organization called America speaks. And one of the things they're doing is monitoring sort of Congress on your corner, like Gabby Giffords was engaged in, where you go out and meet your constituents. Because most of the sort of heated rhetoric comes from clips that you see on cable news. And one of the things they're doing is trying to measure sort of how many of these are really civil, and it turns out quite a lot of them are. Now, it may just be, we're not debating health care right now and we're not in an election cycle right now, but it seemed to be not too bad.

Ted Simons: All right. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Brinton Milward: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed it.

Ted Simons: Tomorrow on "Horizon," the Sierra Club reports on this year's legislative record regarding bills related to the environment. And an update on how budget cuts are affecting Arizona's state parks. That's Wednesday at 7:00 on "Horizon."

Brinton Milward:Director, UA School of Government and Public Policy;

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