Restoring Civility By Reaffirming Free Speech and Free Enterprise, Address by Thomas J. Donohue President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Monday, September 9, 2013 - 8:00pm

As Prepared for Delivery

Civility in America Speaker Series
Stamford, Connecticut

September 10, 2013


Thank you very much, Bob [Dilenschneider], and good evening everyone.

Bob and I have been friends for many years. He has an ability to identify issues that are outside the daily headlines, but vitally important to our country and our society. The need to promote and restore civility is one of them.

I appreciate the turnout this evening, and I’m grateful to all the sponsors. Mr. Mayor, thank you for joining us—it’s an honor. 

This is also something of a homecoming for me. A long time ago, early in my career, I was a vice president at Fairfield University. Liz and I remember our days living nearby with great fondness.

Today I’d like to discuss a few things: why I believe civility is a personal responsibility; some of the factors that may be contributing to the coarsening of our culture; and what the business community and others can do to address the challenge.

Civility Begins at Home and at Work

Mahatma Gandhi once advised us to “be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

In other words, if you want to begin to solve a problem, start by looking in the mirror. Each of us has a personal responsibility to ensure that we practice what we preach.

At the Chamber, we’re in a pretty rough-and-tumble business. We lobby governments in Washington and around the world. We represent business in the courts of law, before the regulatory agencies, in the press, and in the court of public opinion.

We work to hammer out common positions and principles among 3 million very diverse companies, state and local chambers, and industry groups. That’s probably the hardest part of my job. We vigorously defend the free enterprise system at a very challenging time. And we do all of this in the face of criticism and attacks from some pretty serious and worthy adversaries.

It’s not for the faint of heart. But one thing I always tell our members and our employees—especially new employees—is that no matter how tough the battles or how big the responsibilities, don’t forget the rules of engagement at the Chamber.

They’re pretty simple. Conduct yourself with high integrity and good manners—and after that, it’s a barroom brawl! Well, I’m sort of joking about the barroom brawl. But I’m damn serious about integrity and good manners. We simply won’t tolerate rude, unfriendly, or disrespectful behavior in our workplace or among those we deal with, including our adversaries.

The way I put it is this: you can be tough without being a jerk.

I also encourage our folks at the Chamber to be open to different ideas and alternative opinions. Don’t just talk to those with whom you already agree. My approach is I’ll meet with almost anyone and talk to almost anybody, including those who are well known for their anti-business views.

Sometimes I’m asked why are you wasting your time. Well, more often than not, it’s not a waste of time. I usually come away having learned something.  Occasionally, you can establish a certain respect and rapport even while continuing to disagree, which can lead to solutions later on. You can pick up a new insight and perhaps challenge one of your own assumptions. The worst that happens is that by better understanding their arguments, you can strengthen your own.

That’s how we try to conduct ourselves at the Chamber. Lord knows we are far from perfect. But like I said, restoring civility is something we all need to take personally and work on every day.

Factors Undermining Civility

So what are some of the factors that seem to be making America a less civil society? I’m not a social scientist, but I’ve been around a while, I’ve interacted with a lot of people, and I’ve witnessed a lot of history.

I think it’s clear that tough economic times can make us less civil. Alternatively, there’s nothing like a booming economy to make most people feel good and play nice.

It sure helps in government, too. Go talk to the folks in North Dakota, where their coffers are overflowing thanks to the energy boom. Ask them whether the debates over surpluses are more civil than the debates they used to have over deficits. I think you can guess the answer!

But when citizens and governments must share in scarcity, when jobs are few, when opportunities are limited, and when families are struggling economically, divisions and rancor in our communities come to the fore. Resentment, anger, and envy grow.

We’ve made some improvements in our economic circumstances since the crisis of 2008. But the fact is we are stuck in the weakest and slowest economic recovery since World War II. Under such conditions, it’s part of human nature to blame someone else for difficult conditions. Many are looking for scapegoats and regrettably, some of our politicians are all too willing to oblige by engaging in the cheap rhetoric of class warfare.

As I’ll discuss later on, revving up the engines of American growth and prosperity, and making sure the benefits are broadly shared, can go a long way to restoring a more cooperative, tolerant, and respectful society.

Change and uncertainty can also contribute to incivility—especially as we grapple with the new realities of globalization and America’s changing demographics.

Americans have historically handled change and uncertainty better than most. But in modern times, change and uncertainty can quickly add up to fear and insecurity. And this fear and insecurity can trigger less civil and less tolerant behavior towards one another and toward those who may be different.

Right now we’re trying to get a potentially historic immigration reform bill through the Congress to the president’s desk. We must do this for the sake of our economy, our security, and our legacy as an open and welcoming nation.

While there may be many viewpoints in this debate, everyone can agree that the current system is completely broken.

As the immigration debate has unfolded, so far I have been pleased and relieved by the relative lack of recrimination directed at “those people”—the immigrants who have come here, some illegally, in search of a better life for themselves and their children.

There are legitimate questions to debate about the proper course to take on immigration. Most participants in this debate are doing so on the merits and in good faith. But there can be no excuse for lashing out at “those people” because guess what, virtually all of us are—or once were—“those people.”

The aging of our society is another unstoppable demographic reality and a somewhat fearsome change that could undermine our unity and erode civility.

Ten thousand baby boomers are turning 65 every day and will do so for the next 17 years. Almost every one of them—rich, poor, or somewhere in between—is expecting to be supported by our massive entitlement programs, namely Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The Chamber is leading the fight for entitlement reform—commonsense modifications acted upon now in order to avoid much greater pain later on. The economics alone are compelling enough—these programs are already consuming all the money the federal government now collects in income taxes. Before too long they will squeeze out spending for all other national priorities.

But more than economics is at stake. So is our cohesion as a society. America cannot afford the kind of intergenerational conflict that will inevitably occur if we continue to force a massive transfer of wealth from the young to the old.

I believe that our country’s failings in the arena of public education have also contributed to a more divided and less civil society. There’s a lot of focus on the income divide in our country. There ought to be more focus on the educational divide.

Perhaps more than any other factors, the level and quality of a child’s education determine his or her income potential. But it does much more. A good education teaches young people to think, to explore, to innovate, to set goals, to be personally responsible and disciplined, and to open their minds to the wider world of ideas and cultures.

To be sure, there are plenty of highly educated people in America who are rude and close-minded. Maybe you know some of them! But by failing so many of our young people through inferior education, who can deny that we are undermining their chance to participate fully, effectively, and lawfully in the community?

Let me briefly mention two other factors that I believe are contributing to the decline of civility in American life. First is the proliferation of media outlets, entertainment opportunities, and channels of instantaneous communication—all delivered to us courtesy of a ubiquitous and often anonymous Internet.

This is mostly a positive and empowering development. But we need to recognize and work on the downsides. It’s easier now to self-select our news, clicking only on those opinions we already agree with. It’s more tempting now to speak before we think, and to do so in short sensational bursts that provoke and even insult.

And given all the competition for eyes and ears, news and entertainment providers are often driven to the extremes of “shock and awe” in order to build audiences—which in turn has seriously lowered the standards of accuracy and good taste.

The last factor I’d mention—before discussing some possible solutions—is the reality that the American people are politically and philosophically divided almost 50-50 and have been for some time. In fact, recent polls have asked Americans whether they believe the federal government should do more or should it do less. Guess what? Half the country says more and half of it says less.

This divide has narrowed the political center to a sliver—any moderate New England Republican can tell you how lonely it feels out there! The decline of the political center has in turn amplified the more ideological voices on both sides, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to tame and polite political discourse.

The result is a less civil, more bombastic political conversation that frankly disgusts many Americans and prevents our government from solving problems.

This is a challenge, but let’s not waxes too nostalgic about the past. Our politics have often been vicious from the very beginning. Jefferson once called Hamilton the son of a whore and Hamilton publicly exposed Jefferson’s affair with his slave. During the debate over the abolition of slavery, one senator nearly caned his colleague to death on the Senate floor. And our nation did, after all, endure a bloody Civil War.
Incivility has long been a problem, but the imperative to address it has never been more urgent. When politicians posture, insult, and demagogue, what happens? Americans tune out. Problems fester. Challenges go unmet. And our legacy as a can-do nation that embraces exciting ideas and bold solutions diminishes.

The Right to Speak … and the Responsibility to Listen

So let’s talk about possible solutions.

I’d like to tell you that I have some new, groundbreaking insight to bring to this very complex debate. But I’ve learned over the years that complex and seemingly intractable problems cry out for the simplest solutions.

So my thought is this: We need to get back to the basics … including reaffirming and strengthening two fundamental values—our right of free speech and our system of free enterprise. They are by no means cure-alls. But I’m convinced affirming these values will not only help restore civility in our country but also restore opportunity and freedom. In other words, the American Dream.

Let me begin with free speech. You can’t rebuild civility without first recognizing and respecting everyone’s right to speak. And free speech is more than just the right to say something—it’s the right to speak with democratic influence, by which I mean the right to fully participate in the public and political affairs of our communities and our nation.

Intentionally or unintentionally, for good motives and bad, a lot of people are trying to over-regulate speech … to constrain our ability to petition the government … to impose overly-restrictive speech codes on our campuses and other institutions … and to even use powerful arms of the government, such as the IRS, to discriminate against speech they don’t like.

We must vigilantly oppose and guard against attacks on free speech. And please understand—if we lose our constitutionally-protected right to speak, it won’t be because we let some dictator yank it way, it will be because collectively, we Americans let it slip away.

There’s a reason why the right to free speech is the First Amendment to the Constitution. Our Founding Fathers understood its fundamental importance.

Let me give a few examples from my world on how speech is being stifled through fear, intimidation, and overregulation. Labor unions, shareholder activists, and anti-business policymakers have long sought to drive the voice of the business community out of the political process and the public debate.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has been asked by these groups to make a rule that would compel public companies to disclose their spending on independent political speech. The idea here is to bring these companies’ political spending—which is free speech—out into the open so they can be targeted for harassment and boycotts.

In 2010, some in Congress tried to sway the midterm elections in their favor through the DISCLOSE Act, legislation that would have chilled political participation by the business community—but not by labor unions. The bill was defeated. But business opponents still want to see its principles enacted, and some lawmakers are working to revive the legislation.

Proponents of such efforts claim that they are simply fighting for transparency. Don’t be fooled. What they really want is to silence viewpoints they don’t like in order to have a one-sided conversation with the American people in the public square. They aim to do this by regulating speech they don’t like, and intimidating speakers they don’t agree with.

Now, there are plenty of people—maybe even some of you—who may be less than enthused with the business message on all issues. Well then fight us on the ideas! Tell the American people we’re dead wrong! But don’t shut down and choke off our right—or the right of any other American citizen or institution—to speak up and speak out.

Most of our rights in a free society also carry responsibilities. This is especially true when it comes to speech. I strongly believe that the right to speak carries with it the responsibility to listen … to give others a fair hearing … to be open to different points of views.

In my view, it’s the stubborn refusal to listen that is the cause of much of the incivility and dysfunction we see in Washington and across our country today.

Earlier, I mentioned the need for entitlement reform. That’s a classic example of how a problem can get out of hand—not just because people disagree about solutions, but because most people refuse to even recognize there is a problem. They simply don’t want to hear it.

Restoring civility in American life must begin by reaffirming our commitment to everyone’s right to speak—and everyone’s responsibility to listen.

Free Enterprise

We can also help restore civility by reaffirming our commitment to free enterprise and the growth, jobs, and opportunities that free enterprise can deliver.

It’s not perfect, but free enterprise is the best and, I would argue, the fairest and most civilized economic system ever devised.  It offers more opportunity, more personal dignity, more freedom, and more broadly-shared prosperity than any other system.

Properly implemented, it strives to deliver equality of opportunity, not results. It recognizes and rewards the honor and dignity of all work, from blue collar to white collar and everything in between. It allows people to take a risk, fail, and try again without being stigmatized. And when you succeed, you get rewarded.

This is the system that made America the strongest economy on earth. It’s the system that makes the American Dream possible—and during this pivotal time for our nation, it’s a system that deserves reaffirmation from all of us.

Free enterprise can help us address the most urgent need facing our country—more good-paying jobs. On Friday the latest jobs report was released. On the surface, it showed more middling progress, with 169,000 jobs created and the unemployment rate ticking down from 7.4% to 7.3%.

But scratch beneath the surface, and a more disturbing picture emerges. The unemployment rate is dropping because people are giving up looking for work. The labor participation rate is at a 35-year low.

There is a whole class of people in their late 40s and early 50s who have been out of work for months and may never work again. Even college graduates are having difficulty finding jobs. As a result, they are postponing getting married and having children and falling behind financially.

Teen unemployment rates—especially for minorities—are through the roof. An entire generation of young people is at risk.


This is a serious matter for our society. It’s about more than just getting a regular paycheck—it’s about human dignity, being fully engaged in society, and being involved in something larger than yourself. It undercuts the American Dream—and it undermines civility.

That’s why reaffirming our commitment to free enterprise and engaging its principles to create jobs and growth is so imperative. A robust, growing economy, powered by free enterprise will not solve all of our problems, but it will lift our spirits and our sights. It can fund the improvements we must make in our schools, which is the best approach to reducing the inequality of income and of hope.

It will help us bridge the potential divide we face as we struggle to care for growing numbers of elderly while also preserving and expanding opportunities for the young.

And it can put America back to work and help us recapture our legacy and leadership as an exceptional can-do country—a world leader with an economic and moral influence that is second to none.


Let me conclude where I started by saying that when it comes to restoring civility, we must all make a personal commitment.

Like some of you I am frequently asked to address students or speak at their graduations. Often they’re looking for some clues and secrets on how to achieve success.

I’m afraid that more often than not, I disappoint them because I want to leave them with a different message. What I most want to tell those young people is that when you reach a certain age where most of your life is behind you, what’s going to really count? How will you be judged and remembered?

Not by the titles you held, the points you scored, or the money you made—but by the simple test of how you treated others—your family, your friends, the people who worked for you, and even the strangers on the street.

Treat them all with kindness and civility, speak thoughtfully and listen well, and go out of your way to teach and to help— with no expectation of anything in return.

If you do that, you just might get something in return—including better jobs, careers, and livelihoods. But most of all, you will be building a reputation of honor and respect. You will get the most out of life, cement a lasting legacy, and make those you care about—and who care about you— very proud.

Thank you very much.