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Leach on civility, U.S. politics

By Kevin Lin     11/11/10 6:00pm

Jim Leach, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), gave a speech at Herring Hall on Nov. 4 about the importance of civility in a democratic society to students. Leach prefaced his speech with a short history lesson about the founding of the United States and the values that it was founded upon.

"Man is born with inherent rights but not necessarily wisdom," Leach said. "We developed a system with incredible tension and liability all because of the concern of the nature of man."

Leach said that civility was the key component in keeping the system going.

"Is one willing to listen to someone else and give them their due?" Leach said. "And you might say how does this relate to human rights and nature?"

According to Leach, everyone's opinion should be considered when it comes to politics.

"If all men are by presumption of created equal, then everyone is worthy to being listened to, Leach said. "And if everyone is worthy of being listened to, then in a democracy, everyone's opinion is worth being taken into consideration."

The tensions in the system get exposed when civility is taken out of the equation, Leach said. He said this is often the case between candidates in a close race who resort to negative campaigning in order to win the election.

"In a democracy, argumentation has to be considered a social good," Leach said. "Government without argumentation almost always leads to tyranny."

Today, argumentation is often less about ideas and more about rhetoric, Leach said. Political hyperboles are the norm used by members of both political parties.

"The only difference between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama is that Dick has been called a fascist and that Obama has been called both a fascist and a communist, sometimes by the same people," Leach said.

Leach said that words have power and used Obama's speech in Cairo, where the president called on all religions of the world to respect one another, as an example of words being put to good use.

According to Leach, respect and civility are things that are increasingly sparse in today's government.

Leach said this was because of the way the system was set up - members of both major political parties cater to the fringes of their respective parties during primaries and then shift toward the center during general elections. Once in office, they don't act on their centralist positions, since it might displease their primary constituents, who have the power to vote them out of office during the next primary. Thus, it is the majority of Americans, the American center, that often ends up underrepresented in the American government, Leach said.Leach said politics used to be known as the art of compromise and mentioned that the word "politics" has taken a very negative connotation in modern times.

He said he believes that civility and respect need to be instilled back in the system for it to regain its former luster.

"There are some things that we still stand for today that nobody else does," Leach said. "We need to emphasize that.

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