(KUNM Airdates: 9/24/04, 10/29/04)

We live in a political world
Turning and a'thrashing about,
As soon as you're awake,
You're trained to take
What looks like the easy way out.

We live in a political world
Where peace is not welcome at all.
It's turned away from the door
To wander some more
Or put up against the wall.

-Bob Dylan "Political World" from OH MERCY

If you applied for any job, would you publicly discredit the other candidates for the position in hopes of getting it yourself? Why is this technique practiced and accepted in running for political office in the United States, including in the race for the presidency? Why is political discourse in the United States so contentious and conflict-ridden, in general? Has it always been this way? Are we stuck with it or can citizens press for change? Host Suzanne Kryder talks with a panel to explore these questions. Guests include Albuquerque Tribune managing editor and Weekend Edition Sunday contributor Kate Nelson, Dr. Gilbert St. Clair, a lecturer in political science at the University of New Mexico and Dr. Guy Burgess, co-director of the Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado. The show is complimented by interviews with citizens and samples of political ads from the last 50 years.

Part One focuses on the tone of political discourse throughout history and why political speech between politicians today is so contentious. Part Two spotlights campaign advertising, the role of the media in setting the tone, and initiatives underway in some places to improve the tone.

Click here to hear both parts of the program as an MP3.

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ABQ Tribune


University of New Mexico

University of Colorado



Let me ask each of you, in a minute or less, to start out by giving us a quick assessment of what you feel the tone of our political discourse in America is today. Now, that's between policicians or even among citizens. Kate, we'll start with you.

KATE NELSON: It's different, depending on who's doing the talking. I think, among politicians, it's pretty hot. It's not the hottest it's ever been. It certainly could be a lot better, a lot more focussed on issues that matter, rather than, as we're seeing in the Presidential race, a war that ended thirty years ago, and less on a war that's happening now, or on Medicare, etc. Among the electorate, I think there are two things going on. There's a sort of a moderate muddle in the middle, which is, in fact, a majority of people, who are taking politics pretty seriously or are somewhat apathetic about them, but aren't speaking about them in incivil terms. And then, there's the anger at the edges: the people who are listening to that hot-toned punditry and mimicing it in their dinner table conversations, as well as, perhaps, their driving behaviors and whatever else they might participate in in society.

GIL ST. CLAIR: Well, certainly, amongst the politicians today, we have a very partisan division and some bitterness generated by that. This is not unheard of in American politics. We can go back to 1789, the beginning of the Republic, and find very vitupritive contention amongst the politicians. But I quite agree with Kate that amongst the electorate today there are moderates who are a little confused, I think, about all this bitterness. But the Left and Right have a very keen difference over political values and the proper role of government, which is sometimes expressed in uncivil terms.

GUY BURGESS: We have a highly-escalated political conflict in the United States. And one of the things that happens as the escalation process proceeds is that substantive discussion of the merits of the issues involved tends to disappear and be replaced by a level of intense hostility between the groups: almost a complete unwillingness to believe either side has real points that are worth making.

So, before we talk about the history of incivility and how this all got started, why should Americans care about this topic? Is there damage being done?

KATE NELSON: One of the easiest ways you can say, "Yes, damage is being done," is by looking at voter turnout. Fewer and fewer people care to take part in a process that appears distasteful, that appears to leave them, and their concerns, out in the cold. And that's what we've been charting now over at least the last thirty years.

What does it look like? What does the chart say in terms of percentages or is it a huge difference?

GIL ST. CLAIR: Yes. If we take the long look at the turnout. In Presidential elections, which is the highest turnout of all our elections, we're down, in the last election, to forty-nine per cent. We may have a bump up this time, but nearly half of the eligible voters are not participating in the process.

Guy, you mentioned that we're losing the substantive discussions. What's the damage in that or what negative impact is there from incivility?

GUY BURGESS: Well, what happens with this kind of escalation is the focus is on winning the election. And all of the discussion is on really hot-button campaign tactics, trying to move the very few swing voters that remain. So, you find that the election is on a few issues. Which is a long way from the really difficult problems that face the country. So, the real issues fall off the political agenda all together. And the ultimate result is that we end up making a lot of bad decisions. And those, over time, are going to prove pretty costly.

Is civility about being polite?

GUY BURGESS: That's a kind of narrow definition. I think if we decide that that's all it is, we'll have really missed the point. It isn't civil to say, "Excuse me, please, while I stab you in the back." And civility also doesn't automatically imply an immunity from negative campaigns. You really need to be able to raise the tough issues. It's not a synonym for weakness, either. Although, with this whole flap over sensitivity, I think it's being used, tactically, that way. What it really boils down to is a commitment to honesty and truthfulness and a genuine effort to portray the various issues honestly, not using deceptive kind of lying-with-statistics tactics. Also, it implies, I think, an altruistic motive. It isn't pure, selfish competition. The notion that the invisible fist of competition will lead to good policy probably isn't true. Actually, I should correct that: the notion that the invisible hand of pure competition will lead to good policy. The danger is that there's an invisible fist. And, without some level of altruism and commitment to persuasion, you wind up making bad decisions.

KATE NELSON: I find a lot of value in that. I worry that, when we bemoan the lack of civility in political discourse, there's some sort of Pollyanna desire for everyone to get along with everyone. And there's something positive in the rough-and-tumble of politics. People do have widely diverse ideas. And they are valid ideas; there's not a right and a wrong. There's just differences of opinions. And the beauty of American democracy is the freedom to debate it out. And "debate" need not mean that we are cloaking our emotions and our words and the true extent of our feelings. We just need to figure out some way to carry out rough-and-tumble debate, and keep it on the issue. And, too often, I guess, what we really are bemoaning is that we're talking about image; we're talking about the secondary issues; we're making up issues; we're diverting attention, rather than focussing it on where it needs to be.

Right. So, focus on the problem, not the people. But it seems like so much of the campaigning is about this polarization of one personality versus another personality. And they're always described in real extremes, rather than sort of shades of grey. I'm wondering if politicians have always felt this need to appear radically different from one another.

GIL ST. CLAIR: Well, I'm not sure they've always felt that. But, at various points in our history there are very strong feelings and very deep divisions over policies and so on. Talk about slavery: that occupied us for the first sixty years of the republic and feelings were very strong. I'm concerned though that, if a democracy is to work, there must be a fundamental trust by citizens, and by office holders, that their opponents are, basically, well-meaning, and that they are rational, and that they understand that there are other interests at issue and compromise must be made. When we lose that, we become demeaning or even dehumanizing or demonizing, I guess I should say, of our opponents. Then, I think, democracy is under serious threat.

So, Guy, you suggest that a crucial element of civility is when one of the conflicting parties can admit, "hey, I'm wrong," or "hey, my opponent has a better idea." Are you suggesting that a politician should embrace the Flip-Flop?

GUY BURGESS: Well, the danger's the sacrifice trap, where, once you've made sacrifices, or asked your constituents to make sacrifices, you can't admit that it was a mistake. And you wind up getting committed to stupid policy over long periods of time. And the truth of the matter is that the world is a really complicated, messy place. And people make decisions that don't turn out the way they expect, all the time. And if we don't let people change their minds, then we're going to get stuck with a lot of not-so-good policies.

Well, where does that come from, you guys? We let people in our personal lives change their minds. We might be upset about it. But this just seems ridiculous: that we don't let our leaders change their minds.

KATE NELSON: This is a place where the media, who are at least part of it, are going to have to fall on a sword. In a conversation I had recently with a reader, she in fact stated her forgiving nature for the Flip Flop, as you put it: that, for her, that's a sign of a person in evolution. And as events change around them, they change their minds. And that can be a good thing. The problem, I think, the thing that holds back a politician from saying that is because the bombast is so immediate and so loud from the talk radio shows, from the TV roundtable screaming-matches, from the opposing candidate's campaign ad machinery, that, anymore, they can have an ad on the air in twenty-four hours; they can be running it every fifteen minutes. And it's that constant "nyah, nyah, nyah!" right back at the person who, may have, very sincerely, changed their mind on a good point, for good reasons. If you're going to face that kind of backlash, you'll think twice about doing it--whether you're in the political realm, or whether it's in the kitchen, in the middle of a discussion with your spouse: "I'll avoid the argument; I'll stay the course."

GIL ST. CLAIR: I might say that part of the blame for this must rest with the voters, with the citizens. I think, if our citizens were more engaged, they would be more appreciative of the fact that political leaders may change their minds, when they get more information.


Some people believe that a campaign ad should really focus on why I should vote for a candidate, as opposed to why I shouldn't vote for the opponent. But why do attack ads really work?

GIL ST. CLAIR: Well, I think they work because, again, there's a lot of folks not paying much attention and something that sort of grabs you while you're not paying much attention may be effective, and I'm not sure that at least we political scientists understand why the attack ads work so well, despite the fact that citizens say they don't like negative advertising, although there' s a distinction between negative and attack ads, and it is legitimate to use ads which actually deal with substantive issues: Past records, performance of an official, that may be subject to critique.

So that's the difference between negative and attack?

GIL ST. CLAIR: Yes. Now, there are some rules that you've got to employ if you're going to use these successfully. What you put in that negative or attack ad has got to be true, can't be refuted clearly or you lose all credibility. And it can't be personal, because that begins to elicit an emotion of sympathy for the person you're attacking.

Yeah. All right, so Gil mentioned this issue of honesty, and I want to talk a little bit about the Swift Boats Veterans for Truth, because there was a lot of media coverage about that ad against John Kerry, Kate, and I had read that more Americans saw the ad within a newscast than actually saw the ad run, so I'm wondering if that's part of the strategy: Let's create a really negative ad. We don't care if it's true or not, but wow, this will even get press coverage, so we won't even have to pay for the ad.

KATE NELSON: Well, certainly the ad probably deserved some press coverage. The charges in it were so explosive, and so complex, that it became the onus of media to try to dissect the ad for its truthfulness, on behalf of voters who wanted to know that. That said, that's about that particular ad. But yes, in general, a lot of campaign coverage anymore becomes focused on what the candidates are saying in their advertisements and it's a really effective manipulation of our time, as journalists. The reasons that they' re doing it are obvious, that they're getting an extra bang for their buck. Among the reasons that the media is responding and doing their own reports on the advertising is because that is such an important part of the campaign, and for many voters, that's their only contact with the candidate and they're happening with such speed, with such rapidity and with such loudness, that the media feels compelled to respond.

Guy, language is really powerful. Do you think the media tries to turn elections into boxing matches?

GUY BURGESS:Well, the certainly .competitive dynamic where the media needs to present things in an interesting way that attracts readers, and we've heard that there's some problem attracting readers and listeners, so there's a tendency to do that.

Well, Kate, how about you? Do you think that if the Albuquerque Tribune got some feedback from its readers about the kind of language it used would that have any impact on the way you all write headlines?

KATE NELSON:Definitely. We really take our readers' comments very seriously, and things like headlines.yeah, we pay a lot of attention to those. We're trying to get people to pick that newspaper up off the rack and it's got to have some pop to them as they're walking by on their way to the grocery store. That said, we also don't want to be selling them on a story that doesn't deliver, or that over-sensationalizes or creates an emotional reaction that is unwarranted, given the nature of the story.

But why does it have to be a boxing match? I mean, they don't have gloves on. They're not.

KATE NELSON: Well those are.You know what, to be honest, those are cliché terms among political reporters who fall into, "There's this side, there's that side, they're fighting, they're dueling, there's a winner, there's a loser." One of the ones that I'm warring against in my own newsroom is this.

Oh, Oh! You're warring?

KATE NELSON:Yeah, well, sorry about that.this labeling of New Mexico and other states as "Battleground States." This isn't a war. There are no weapons. No one will die at the end of it. We are simply a swing state, but "BATTLEGROUND STATE!!" is this new, sexy term, and that comes from the campaigns, and the media picks up on it and I'm fighting a losing war over it.

GIL ST. CLAIR: This is not totally new in American politics. Alexis De Tocqueville, the Frenchman who toured the country in 1833, wrote that American campaigns were all about sport and spectacle. So, you know, sort of the excitement of the campaign and the sporting aspects of it, have been a part of our campaigns for a very long time.

I'd like to get to a hopeful example. It's run by the St. Paul League of Women Voters, and it's called the Minnesota Compact. The Minnesota Compact started in 1996. It was a project out of the Humphrey Institute and their Center for the Study of Politics. And, at that time, they set a standard for four areas of political campaigns. One of the items on the items on the Citizen Participation Check List: Let candidates know which issues you think are important and ask them to address the issues fairly and squarely. And, Guy, that's really what you've been talking about: that we lose the substantive issues. Do you think this would work, if people called up their candidates and said, "Hey, I want you to talk about health care?"

GUY BURGESS: I think, if you had a significant portion of the electorate actively supporting something like this it would go a long ways towards promoting more constructive political campaigns. I think that it changes the structure of the discussion. It removes some of the tactical advantage for what you might call, "dirty tricks" campaigning. And it provides real recognition and advantage to politicians who take a more constructive approach. In a sense, what you're organizing is a political action group that would support constructive campaigns on either side. That'd be a very interesting thing to try to do.

Can each of you, I hate to say it, share a sound bite about what you feel is the most important piece to remember about improving political dialogue. We'll start with Kate Nelson...

KATE NELSON: Pay attention.

GUY BURGESS: I think the key is to focus on persuading others that your view of the world makes sense--but, at the same time, being willing to be persuaded, yourself.

GIL ST. CLAIR: Well, I don't think I could improve on what Guy has just said, in terms of trying to persuade others that you mean well, and accepting the fact that they may mean well, even though their views are different. We need a trust, and we need an acceptance of basic good intentions of our fellow citizens, if we're to have a civil discourse.

(transcription courtesy Rogi Riverstone)






WEBSITE: Conflict Resolution Network, Australia's Conflict Resolving Government