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When campaign politics turn vicious, what voters can do

As the 2012 campaigns settle into a pattern of personal attacks, voters need not be passive, or even resigned. The can demand civility.

Lynn Armstrong Coffin and Eric Papalini, not shown, of hold puppets of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama boxing before a campaign rally at the Ringling Museum of Art Sept. 20.

AP Photo

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For voters tempted to ignore the 2012 election because of too many passionate, personal attacks by candidates, here’s a bit of advice – and it comes from someone who saw it first in American politics:

“In causes of passion, admit reason to govern,” wrote George Washington in his “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.”

Oddly enough, the first president’s call for civil discourse in public life has been echoed by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – despite their occasional attacks on each other’s character.

Public debate, said President Obama in 2009, must be done with “friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.” And earlier this year, Mr. Romney said, “Poisonous language ... has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind.”

Obama rose to national prominence in 2004 with his appeal for civility. In his 2008 campaign, he promised to change the capital’s caustic tone, or what Bill Clinton called “the politics of personal destruction.”

But on Thursday, Obama said the “most important” lesson he has learned as president is that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.”

His pessimism is echoed by polls. A large majority of Americans say they see a rise in general rudeness and incivility in society. This can have serious effects. Last year, a British research study found that people’s feelings about their community are influenced more by the level of civility than the level of crime. Mutual respect is needed as a glue to help society govern itself, the study stated.

Civility in political campaigns and in legislating isn’t required simply because people should be nice. It helps grease relationships between opposing parties, which can then lead to bipartisan solutions. It does this by allowing lawmakers to remain open to being challenged on their most fundamental beliefs without fear of being ridiculed or turned into a caricature. They can disagree agreeably.


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