Oct. 1 – WSU Common Reading: Cornell Clayton to discuss civility, democracy

PULLMAN, Wash.— U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) hollers “You Lie!” at President Barack Obama during his health-care speech to Congress. Conservative talk-radio showman Rush Limbaugh labels a caller a “slut” because she advocates insurance coverage for contraceptive care. Occupy Wall Street protesters portray bankers as criminals.  Is American democracy in the midst of an “incivility crisis”?

Cornell Clayton, Washington State University political science professor, will discuss “Being Wrong about Democracy: Political Incivility in a Polarized Society” 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1, in the Smith Center for Undergraduate Education, Room 203. Hosted by the Common Reading Program, this presentation is open to the public at no cost.  [http://commonreading.wsu.edu]

“It has become common wisdom that American democracy is in the midst of an ‘incivility crisis,’” says Clayton in a description of his lecture.  “Politicians and pundits routinely bemoan the declining level of political debate and blame it for policy gridlock and the inability to forge consensual solutions to society’s most pressing problems.”

Clayton, who also directs the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service on the WSU campus, is in favor of a more civil and productive political discourse.  However, his own research on the topic and his work with the Foley Institute on a series of civility and democracy projects, supported by National Endowment for the Humanities, have convinced him that today’s political acrimony is not only not that exceptional historically, but that the relationship between civility and democracy is more nuanced and complicated than most realize.

“Focusing attention on the causes of social division rather than the style of political debate is critical, but so too is realizing that pluralist democracy requires citizens to entertain the possibility that they might well be wrong about things they hold dear and care deeply about.   Ultimately democracy is a commitment to a process of open and inclusive decision-making, one that might get it ‘wrong,’ and not to a set of ‘right’ policy outcomes.”

The book “Being Wrong,” by Kathryn Schulz, was chosen for use in first-year classes across many disciplines this year, and thousands of WSU students are using the book and topics from it within classes and in special discussion groups.


Karen Weathermon, Co-Director of the WSU Common Reading Program, 509-335-5448, kweathermon@wsu.edu

Beverly Makhani, Director of Communications, Office of Undergraduate Education, 509-335-6679, Makhani@wsu.edu