Allegheny Becomes Hub for Political Civility

By Mary Solberg

More than fifty students from fourteen colleges and universities throughout the country gathered at Allegheny in May to take a stand against the rising tide of incivility in American politics. The college leaders issued “Ten Tips to Improve Civility” during Pathway to Civility, a national conference of college Democrats, Republicans, and independents held at Allegheny May 18-19.

Here are their recommendations:

  • Listen to opposing views.
  • Seek shared values.
  • Acknowledge the legitimacy of opposing positions.
  • Identify the problem at hand, focusing on it rather than on larger conflicts.
  • Avoid political caricatures, labels and generalizations that may not truly represent the views of your adversaries.
  • Accept that disagreement will exist without giving up your own convictions.
  • Clarify what is being said before attacking and/or responding.
  • Recognize the value of solutions beyond those offered by traditional party platforms.
  • Consider the consequences of what you say and do.
  • Hold yourself personally ac- countable for your own political actions.

The students developed the list during one of the culminating activities of the two-day conference, sponsored by the Center for Political Participation (CPP) and the Civic Engagement Council at Allegheny College. “What we did was help to train a generation of Americans who are going to be in charge 10, 15, 20 years from now,” says Joe Menze, a student at Indiana University-Purdue University “Hopefully, when we get in charge we’ll know that we have to sit down and talk with people we don’t agree with and that real change can happen that’s good for America and good for everybody and which everybody can agree with.”

The conference was a pilot program of the CPP, which has been at the forefront of national efforts to examine civility and politics and to enhance communication between young Democrats, Republicans and independents. “Our idea was to encourage students from both sides of the aisle to work together to examine the serious issue of civility in politics, establish a high bar for the respectful exchange of ideas, and, in the process, perhaps begin to develop some lasting friendships,” explained Daniel M. Shea, political science professor and CPP director. U.S. Representative Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa. – 3rd District) was the keynote speaker. She acknowledged that the 111th Congress has faced unprecedented incivility, particularly in the throes of the national health care debate. “It’s been eye-opening for me to see,” Dahlkemper told the students, adding that she herself had been the object of threats following her “yes” vote for health reform. “The good news I have to offer is that there really is civility in Congress, except that it does not make the nightly news cut.”

According to Shea, the need for a conference on civility emerged as the American health care debate turned ugly this past year. The robust political activity that surged among youth in the 2008 election already has substantially declined, Shea says. CPP student fellow Matt Lacombe ’11 led the final activity of the conference that resulted in the 10 Tips to Improve Civility. “I hope our conversation will continue on Facebook, maintaining both its passionate yet civil tone and allowing students to participate from different parts of the country,” Lacombe says. Workshops featured Peter Hwosch, a documentary producer and core member of the Transpartisan Alliance, who filmed the 2006 Reuniting America workshop that included Al Gore and stakeholders across the political spectrum; Richard Shafranek and Maya Brod, graduating CPP fellows, who gave a PowerPoint presentation titled “What’s Political Correctness Anymore?”; and Michael Wolf, of Indiana University-Purdue University, who lectured on “ ‘If Men Were Angels’: The Merits of Political Disagreement.” Wolf acknowledged that you can’t avoid disagreement when discussing politics. “The paradox,” he explained, “is that we want disagreement for deliberation, but we don’t want disagreement to stifle political participation. Citizens do have the power to deter- mine how much disagreement they allow in. They can control political discussion.”

In the weeks preceding the conference, the CPP released results of a national survey on civility and com- promise in American politics. “Nastiness, Name-Calling, and Negativity” revealed widespread concern among many Americans that the tone of political discourse has deteriorated significantly. Go to to read more.