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Can we restore compromise and civility to politics?

Politics used to be the art of the possible. Now it's the art of making pledges that render dealmaking untenable.

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As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I have been crisscrossing the country speaking on the subject of civility and its centrality to American history.

The good news is that Americans from the left and right tell me they're hungry to reclaim a brand of politics that is spirited, but not mean-spirited. There is widespread recognition that the times demand sacrifice as long as it is mutual and fair.

What is being tested in the wake of unconscionably divisive campaigns is whether a newly divided government can muster sufficient goodwill to accommodate diverse perspectives and function effectively.

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For years, politics has been considered the art of compromise, but for many of today's political activists, compromise is an untenable concept. Yet, if all men are created equal, surely it follows that everybody can learn from somebody else.

Seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual or one political party. Public decisionmaking does not lend itself to certitude. That is why humility is a valued character trait and why civility is the linchpin of our democracy.

Civility is not simply or principally about manners. It doesn't require that vigorous advocacy be avoided. Argumentation is a social good. Without argumentation, there is a tendency toward dogmatism. The door opens to tyranny.

What civility requires is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on one another.

Historical perspective

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