Are we facing a crisis of civic discourse and, indeed, of civility? As we move towards the later stages of the Brexit process, a General Election and, who knows, possible second referendums on Brexit and Scottish independence, we’re likely to see this question posed with increasing urgency.
There’s a sense that the way in which we talk about politics is increasingly personalised, polarised and abusive. Anecdotally we hear of councillors receiving far higher levels of abuse than in the past. We’ve all seen the levels of abuse directed at public, and not so public, figures on social media.
We need to be careful, as always, not to exaggerate historical exceptionalism. Politics has always had rough edges. An eighteenth century parliamentary election or voting for a Roman consulship might make Twitter look tame.
Nonetheless, there are some particular features shaping the ways in which we currently interact that do feel unprecedented. The effects of globalised capitalism on some communities, the growth of identity politics and the advent of social media all combine to create an increasingly tribalised and disinhibited politics while at the same time placing significant stress on the public institutions – the press, Parliament, the courts, local government – that used to mediate conversations in the public realm and constrain failings in civic discourse.
Why does this matter? In part this is matter of civility. Robustness can be important, as can challenge, but if we make the public realm too toxic people will retreat from it and cynicism and disengagement will become self-fulfilling prophecies. Even more importantly, an excessively polarised and partisan form of civic discourse does not fulfil its proper function.
There are three key roles for public debate: solving problems (or at least determining a way forward), providing points of commonality that can bring society together and illuminating our understanding of the world and each other.
Political discourse that is unable to escape in-group/out-group dynamics and which attacks people rather than debates ideas cannot do any of those things. It doesn’t move us forward; it doesn’t work; it’s mere noise.
But while this challenge is real and significant, it can also feel insuperable. How do we reverse these powerful cultural trends?
There’s no simple answer to that, but focusing on the purpose of civic discourse can also help us to see a way forward and delineates the sort of role local government might play. Solving problems, building common ground, understudying people and places: these are all things which local government at its best excels at. And while these things are, or should be, the outcomes of effective public dialogue they can also be its foundation.
If local government can do its job well in relation to people and places it can create the foundation for a different style of political engagement: one that engages with difference while also seeking common ground, one that focuses on problems but that also seeks ways forward.
In part this is possible because of the difference in scale and focus. It’s more obvious what is working and what is not at local level; it’s easier to come together around the future of your neighbourhood than your nation; it’s harder to abuse people you live among than strangers on social media.
Done well, local politics provides a grounded starting point from which we can begin to build upwards, in policy terms, but also discursively. Civility begins with the civic.
Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGIU. This article first appeared in The MJ.