Essays: Ruth Bamberger

Can Politics Be Civil?

In my 29 years at Drury, I was faculty sponsor and supporter of many student groups—Young Democrats, College Republicans, Independents and Libertarians, plus Environmental Club, a fraternity, and organizations supporting the rights of women, minorities, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. The students who led these groups had convictions and the eagerness to spread the message of what they believed. There were campus uproars at times, but we maintained our civility.

I grew up in a Republican family but morphed into a Democrat myself. I believed in the party’s commitment to civil rights and the policies it supported to improve the lives of ordinary people. I am a capitalist and a socialist, supporting both a responsible free market and equitable distribution of wealth. These goals are not incompatible, but they do require what political scientists define as “art of compromise,” and civility facilitates healthy compromise.

Two stories from my career exemplified the civility of students. In 1992, three students participated in a presidential debate assuming the roles of candidates Bill Clinton, Bush senior, and Ross Perot. The students had prepared comments and debated their positions in a rather informal, non-threatening environment. No orchestration, spin, or media hype with 24/7 “talking heads” salivating over a “gotcha moment.”

I ran for Congress in the 7th District in 1996, but I taught my regular courses during the campaign. One of my students worked in my opponent’s campaign. A reporter who visited my class questioned how this was possible. My first response was that the classroom is no place to proselytize, and partisanship need not polarize; in fact, it’s a means to dialogue and opening ourselves to new ideas.

For me, Drury was a space where we questioned and challenged not just our colleagues, but ourselves as well. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dimitri asks Starov, “What must I do to win salvation?” And Starov responds, “Above all else, never lie to yourself.”

Not one of us knows everything. When politicians and pundits realize this as well as our students do, civility in politics will reign.