Peter Wood

This article was originally published by NAS president Peter Wood in his capacity as a blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Sarah Palin is viewed so disdainfully by the professoriate in general (see herehere, and here) that it is arresting to find in a new book by a senior professor an attempt to treat her dispassionately. The book is Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics (Temple UP, 2010). The author, Susan Herbst, is a professor of Public Policy at Georgia Tech and Chief Academic Officer of the University System of Georgia.

Rude Democracy calls for a “culture of argument,” by which Herbst means something quite specific. She would like to make the formal discipline of argument “central to education during vital years when young people learn to be citizens.” She wants to alert us to the strategic uses of incivility as well as civility so that we understand that rudeness has, so to speak, its proper place. She wants to make us into a nation of better listeners. And she believes that Americans in many walks of life would benefit from acquiring the arts of structured debate. Her model for this is Stephen Toulmin’s topology of “persuasive argument”—claims, grounds, warrant, backing, qualifiers, and rebuttals.

Is this an implausible dream? Herbst observes, accurately I think, that Americans already have an aversion to vitriolic show-offs. When these folks show up in online discussions, they attract some initial attention but the others in the conversation soon turn away. Respondents, she says, “police themselves” to a quieter tone, an instance of “civility as a strategic weapon,” in this case a weapon aimed at sidelining the anger impresarios.

Herbst presents three case studies of the play between civility and incivility in American life: Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential campaign; Barack Obama’s 2009 Notre Dame graduation speech; and a survey Herbst herself designed, which examined “how much freedom of speech students [at the University of Georgia system] feel that they have in their daily lives at our universities.” I may comment on the Obama speech and the student survey another time. Herbst’s chapter on Palin is the showpiece. She writes that “Palin’s charisma, her approach to political speech, and her ambivalence about the role of gender, all provide a tremendously rich portrait of civility and incivility in public life.”

Herbst appears to have her own ambivalence about Palin. She depicts Palin as a brilliant tactician of emotional appeals and as someone with a superb intuitive sense of how to modulate between forms of incivility that unnerve her opponents and calls for civility when attempting to claim the high ground. This is, to be sure, a none too flattering account of the former governor. Herbst is essentially extolling her for qualities that might be described as demagogic, though she avoids that particular characterization. Palin’s “most striking” ability is making “strong emotional connections with audiences” and she has “a knack for reciprocity and interchange.” Herbst depicts Obama, by contrast, as a statesman whose use of rhetorical techniques of forceful analogies, dissociation, and symbolic condensation, and “frame shifting” are the mark of sophisticated intelligence.

I don’t think anyone will come away from Rude Democracy supposing that Herbst has strayed from the academic orthodoxy that Obama is smart and Palin is dumb, but Herbst does manage to keep this bias in check long enough to give us a view of Palin as a “gifted orator”—which is far more of a concession than many academics would allow. Herbst goes even further: “I would argue that Palin reinvented the very notion of the crowd for our time.” Palin used “unpredictability” in a way that “ratcheted up both the intensity and the subsequent media scrutiny.” The media scrutiny, in turn, became so partisan against Palin that it fed the emotion of the pro-Palin crowds.

Herbst faults the media for failing even to attempt to figure out “whether problematic behavior [at campaign rallies] was undertaken by organized groups, or were just spontaneous rhetorical outbursts of unconnected strangers.” She says “even occasional attempts at more precision are absent,” and “We have no idea whether [Palin’s] supporters were more or less worrisome, relative to Democratic crowds.” This leaves the typical depiction of Palin’s supporters—and by extension the Tea Party—as “angrier, meaner, and more uncivil” than other political partisans–as “lost to history.”

While Herbst adopts this Scottish verdict on Palin’s supporters, she sticks with the idea of Palin herself as a master of incivility. For one thing, Palin “would not discipline her hecklers and chanters.” For another, she praised her crowds for “their intensity of feeling.” It is hard to see that candidate Obama provides any contrast on this point, but Herbst sees a contrast in Palin’s “demeaning the popularity of her opponent,” an incivility that she thinks absent in Obama’s rhetoric. The key points for Herbst are the handful of now famous phrases that Palin used: accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” and calling him a “socialist.” In a later chapter, Herbst brings up Palin’s 2009 attack on the bureaucratic bodies she called “death panels” that under Obama health care legislation would have the power to decide which patients would qualify for life-saving medical intervention.

Herbst is surely right that these were “uncivil” declarations. If Herbst were being entirely fair, she would also acknowledge that they are pitch-perfect symbolic “condensations” of the sort she praises Obama for. Is Obama a “socialist”? It depends on what exactly the word means, but Stanley Kurtz has now provided a deeply informed and carefully documented account of Obama’s 30-some-year involvement with socialist politics and its attempts to broaden its appeal by shunning the label.

Palin’s use of the word is hardly as problematic as some, including Herbst, would suggest. Likewise “palling around with terrorists” is a perfectly apt way to refer to Obama’s long and intimate friendship with Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, ex post facto efforts to minimize the connection notwithstanding. As for “death panels,” the phrase cuts to the painful heart of the matter. Surely any such bureaucratic body would wrap itself in pleasing euphemisms, e.g. “Committee on Quality of Life Assurance.” But Palin’s phrase is clear, and when Herbst dismisses it as a “mischaracterization of voluntary palliative care,” we are back in the realm of rhetorical mystification.

Herbst, however, keeps coming back to an idea of Palin as “not…a monster” and her rhetoric as not “unacceptable by a strict standard of political civility.” Faint praise to be sure, but any praise at all in this context registers as a surprise. And Herbst occasionally reaches further, though with a hint of reluctance: “Palin reflects characteristics of tremendous civility as well, and we need to keep this point in the analytic mix.”

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