Most people will agree that civility is in steep decline in America, particularly within politics and government. We are exposed daily to increasingly rude, crass and aggressive behavior not just in political campaigns, but in the press, on the internet and in everyday life situations ranging from motoring down the highway, shopping and dining, on school campuses when other opinions may be espoused, and in simple, ordinary life whether it be barbecuing, swimming in a pool, or something as mundane as patronizing a coffee shop.
Politics, however, is the most visible aspect in an apparent downward spiral of decorum and decency. Injurious comments from members of both political parties have steadily seeped down from the once hallowed halls of government to ordinary citizens who commonly spew hateful epithets such as “get out of my country,” “go back to your country” or, to their most incredulous extent, “go back to Africa.”
Most Americans condemn incivility
KRC Research, a public opinion research consultancy based in Washington, D.C., conducted a survey last year and found that likely voters see the negative consequences of uncivil behavior. Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed said incivility in government is preventing action on important issues. Seventy-seven percent believe the United States is losing stature worldwide as a civil nation, while 76 percent said incivility makes it difficult to discuss controversial issues. This frustration has, reportedly, led to 64 percent of those surveyed to say they’ve stopped paying attention to political conversations and debates, thereby encouraging 61 percent of respondents to admit they would never consider entering public service because of the nasty, toxic atmosphere within political discourse.
The survey revealed that Americans feel incivility has dire consequences and tends to be directed at certain groups. Most see a direct link between incivility in society and violent behavior (93 percent), online bullying/cyberbullying (90 percent), discrimination and unfair treatment (88 percent), humiliation and harassment (92 percent) and wanton intimidation and threats—particularly against persons of color, non-Protestant religious denominations, and the LBGT community—at 93 percent.
Incendiary rhetoric common in politics
There was widespread incivility, of course, within politics long before Donald Trump became president. Political buffs may point to the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton when the sordid details of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky actually included a public description of the president’s penis. Fans of American political history might call attention to the 1801 presidential election where everything from accusations of mulatto children scampering around Monticello to claims of Alexander Hamilton being an octoroon (one-eighth Black blood by descent) were the order of the day. That campaign was so incendiary that failed candidate Aaron Burr killed Hamilton in a duel after the latter endorsed Thomas Jefferson for the White House.
The 2016 presidential campaign played a significant role in latest round of political incivility. A Pew Research poll conducted just prior to election day found 70 percent of Americans believing that incivility has reached so-called “crisis levels.” The Trump campaign was uncivil, unruly, divisive and, since victory, has not regressed in its onslaught against political opponents, the media or ordinary citizen opposition. The public was inundated with unseemly name-calling such as “low-energy Jeb,” “lying Ted,” “little Marco” and “crooked Hillary/lock her up!” Former President Clinton in late June suggested that President Trump is at least partly to blame for a lack of civility in politics in suggesting that he has “poured poison” down “America throat” since taking office.
“A lot of poison has been poured down America’s throat since that 2016 campaign started,” Clinton told the press when asked about calls for civility after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant by its owner over her role in the Trump administration. “It’s hard not to pour poison down people’s throat and not have some of come back up and bubble up.” Clinton pointed to Sanders’ decorum after restaurant management requested she leave, noting that she was very dignified and declined to make a “scene.”
“She didn’t chew them out,” Clinton said, “and she didn’t pitch a fit. She didn’t call them ‘immigrant loving thugs’ or anything like that. She got up and left and offered to pay.”
‘Where is the respect?’
Last summer, weeks of controversy ensued after comedian Kathy Griffin posted a photo of President Trump’s severed head. Around the same time, a republican congressman from Montana body-slammed a reporter who inquired about the Congressional Budget Office estimates of the failed American Health Care Act. People from coast to coast—from all political affiliations—asked rhetorically: “where is respect and civility in American politics?”
For the past two months, official Washington has been engaged in a spirited debate about civility in politics. Republicans insist that the impetus for this discussion has largely come about because of the actions of Democrats and their supporters. The incident with Sanders came on the heels of restaurant protests against Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Neilsen and White House aide Stephen Miller because of their complicity with the Administration’s family separation policy. Then came Los Angeles Rep. Maxine Waters who was captured on video telling her supporters that if they see someone from Trump’s Cabinet “…you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Shortly after the 2016 election, Vice President Mike Pence was soundly booed while attending a performance of the hit musical “Hamilton” in New York City. Toss in Robert De Niro’s profanity-laced denunciation of the president at the recent Tony Awards, and comedian Samantha Bee’s insult of Ivanka Trump and it appears obvious that political discourse among otherwise wise and accomplished professionals has coarsened dramatically. On the flip side, here are a few Tweets from President Trump leveled at anyone who opposes his policies:
Trump and his Tweets
Sen Jeff Flake: “a flake”
Sen Tim Kaine: “a stiff”
Hillary Clinton: “crooked”
Sen Chuck Schumer “cryin’”
Former CIA Director John Brennan: “a liar”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “very dishonest and weak”
Rep. Conor Lamb: “Lamb the sham”
Rep. Maxine Waters: “low IQ”
Off Twitter, President Trump hurled a racial slur at Sen. Elizabeth Warren in calling her “Pocahontas” and on more than one occasion has said that Democrats “don’t care about crime,” are “extremist open-border Democrats” and are “protecting MS-13 Thugs.”
President Trump has accused Democrats of telling “phony stories of sadness and grief” about immigrant children being separated from their parents because they hope “it will help them in the elections.” During his campaign, he regularly impugned the patriotism of Democrats because of their alleged opposition to increased military spending. During a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, candidate Trump said he’d like to “punch protesters in the face” or “knock crap out of them.”
President gets ‘most blame’
Media & Democracy, a social science research council, conducted a poll last summer and found that nine in 10 Americans believe that the overall tone and level of civility in American politics has “decreased” since 2013. The survey of 1,300 adults showed a majority of participants (56 percent) believe that President Trump should receive “most blame” for the current state of civility in American politics. However, more than one-third of those polled (34 percent) believe that personally insulting the Chief Executive is “never fair game.” Also, when asked about the possible intersections between civility and compromise on Capitol Hill, a considerable majority of respondents (80 percent) believe “greater civility makes compromise more possible” while only 5 percent believe “there is no relationship between civility and compromise.”
Who is to blame for the shouting match? The media didn’t exactly fair well in the Media & Democracy poll. A majority of respondents gave the media a “4” or “5” rating, including more than one-third of people saying that America editors and reporters should receive the “most blame” for the state of civility in politics. Congress didn’t have much to be proud of, either. A sizable majority of respondents (80 percent) gave Congress the same 4 or 5 rating as they did with the media. Nearly half of the participants said Congress should receive the “most blame” for the poor state of civility in politics. President Trump may have come out worst of all. Seventy-one percent of persons gave the president the same 4 or 5 rating of blame—nine points lower than Congress. As well, a majority of 56 percent said President Trump should receive the “most blame” for the current state of political civility.
Fault lies with political leaders
“Though the media has been under scrutiny for their political coverage, ‘institutional actors’ such as the president and Congress receive higher ratings of ‘most blame’ for the state of civility,” said Cynthia Villacis, who conducted the poll. “This underpins the public’s perception that political leaders are responsible for the tone of politics in America.”
The causes of the poor state of civility—both in and outside of politics—are difficult to determine. There are three factors, however, that may have contributed to the sharp decline of manners and good fellowship. Among the possible reasons are the rise of social media, a sense of extreme individualism and a belief in individual “self-esteem and fair play” regardless if the latter issue is merited or not.
The decline in civility in politics didn’t happen overnight. Many social scientists believe we became more disrespectful of one another long before the advent of the World Wide Web. Yet, the lack of civility has definitely accelerated in recent years and at the same time Americans have come to embrace social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.–opportunities intended to foster better communication between strangers—which have, in turn, emboldened many to behave in deplorable ways with little fear of reprisal.
Is compromise dead?
These days, political candidates are encouraged to collect “likes” on their fan page(s) rather than persuade constituents by the strength of their argument. More often, the words used by today’s politicians may reflect the fleeting needs of social media rather than what the voting public would expect from their representatives whether it be at the local, state or national levels. Increasingly—possibly by virtue of social media—a false notion has arisen among the body politic that self-esteem may “trump” civility and restraint, and that all ideas should be treated as meritorious no matter how vile and uncivil the messenger may present themselves. In modern political discourse, no one will admit to being wrong and, conversely, no one will admit when another person is right. The respondents in the Media & Democracy poll effectively agreed that compromise has died and blame is only laid at the feet of those who dare to question the merits of bad ideas rather than with the authors of said ideas.