National Institute for Civil Discourse opens in…Arizona?

In a development whose irony cannot be ignored, the University of Arizona launched the National Institute for Civil Discourse [NICD] at the end of February 2011. Yes, that Arizona: The state with some of the most repressive anti-immigrant laws in America. The state whose governor cut off funding for life-saving organ transplants for people receiving Medicaid. The state that brought us Sen. John McCain and Governor Jan Brewer, neither of whom has a stellar record for civil discourse or humane policy-making. And, of course, the state where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down at a political rally in January.

I’m not saying that the intent and mission of the new institute is bad. In fact, given that it’s located in Arizona, the institute seems to have potential as a counterbalance to the uncivil policies and behaviors emanating from its host state.  For the record, the institute describes itself as:

…a national, nonpartisan center for debate, research, education and policy generation regarding civic engagement and civility in public discourse consistent with First Amendment principles. It offers an institutional structure to support research and policy generation and a set of innovative programs advocating for civility in public discourse, while encouraging vigorous public debate, civic engagement, and civic leadership.

For gravitas, NICD has lured ex-presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to serve as honorary co-chairs. Bush 41 seems a reasonable choice, as he was relatively benign in the civil discourse department. He served at a time when political discourse had its heated moments, but nothing like what we’ve seen in the past 10 years or so.  On the debit side, though, H.W. did spawn and promote the political career of Bush 43, who pretty much flunked the civility test. But we can’t hold H.W. totally responsible for W.

It’s probably fair to say that Clinton was civil–although sometimes colorful– in his rhetoric and generally people-sensitive in his policies. But Clinton’s presence at NICD is poignant: He has earned his place at the table as a perennial target of political  vitriol during his campaigns and his two terms as President.

NICD is the new kid on the block in a growing roster of related initiatives aimed at nurturing a more civil tone in political dialogue. Already in place is St. Louis’ Danforth Center for Faith and Politics, a center-right program with a similarly stated intent, based at Washington University.  At California State University-Northridge, there’s a year-long initiative called “Civil Discourse & Social Change,” a program with many cousins at universities across the country. To name just a few.

So, is civil discourse a practical, sustainable trend or a buzz-phrase? Will high-minded mission statements and university symposia led by big-name headliners and Ph.D’s influence partisan politicos in the heat of do-or-die campaigning, when verbal “push” could come to literal “shove?” I’m hoping for the best and preparing for more of the worst.