Alexander Heffner and the future of American political civility

Alexander Heffner, journalist and host of the PBS show “The Open Mind.” Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

By Joseph Marascuillo
Staff writer

Last week, journalist and host of the PBS show “The Open Mind” Alexander Heffner came to Sewanee to deliver a talk on civil discourse. In his presentation on “Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age: The Quest for a Post-Partisan Future,” Heffner spoke on the devolution of personal civility between political actors, the rise of an “anti-social media” movement, and political literacy.

The talk centered upon what Heffner believes is the slow death of political civility. Heffner calls this devolution and phasing out of civility a “serious change in psyche,” and says that the shift is very recent. This devolution of civility is caused chiefly by a culture of political illiteracy, a lack of understanding of how the government works, which can arise from general disregard for the democratic process.

To Heffner, political literacy is essential for political civility. One example of political illiteracy that he gave was the many internet comment sections on major news websites. While a majority of news sites still have active comment sections, many have phased them out due to misinformation and abuse.

“Sites with comments sections should force those who comment to take a literacy test,” said Heffner, “to make sure that they’ve read the article.”

The other key factor, anti-social media, is a term given to fraudulent yet believable news and general misinformation spread online by malignant actors in order to influence public opinion. These accounts and outlets are widely unregulated by the social media websites they post on, and are even allowed to monetize their content.

Heffner believes that the CEOs of these social media companies that are guilty of hosting harmful misinformation should be held accountable for their harmful content and should find a way to regulate their platforms.

However, such an approach presents problems, as there is far too much content on social media posted every day for any company to manually review with human employees. The task would have to be accomplished by bots, which are still many years away from being infallible, objective critics of allowable content.

What Heffner hopes to accomplish through his career as a political journalist is to promote discourse unobstructed by confounding elements such as bigotry, dysfunction, and instability in order to regain a culture of civil discourse. Heffner emphasized “taking back” aspects of America’s shared political culture.

He wants to take  back the political narrative and give it back to “those who want to work constructively.” In a world swamped by fake news, anti-social media, and political illiteracy, Heffner hopes to revive the culture of political civility that we as Americans have left behind.

Heffner is a widely published journalist with contributions to
The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine. Heffner also has a new book coming out this June, the tenth volume of A Documentary History of the United States, which chronicles the history of America through historical political writings.