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Prof. Susan Roberts Weighs in on the High Price of Political Incivility

Prof. Susan Roberts
Susan Roberts

Few could dispute that incivility permeates today’s political environment. Whether it be in a political advertisement, a campaign rally, a presidential primary debate or a cable news program, personal attacks often overshadow serious political discourse. Much as we might like to believe, political incivility is not limited to one campaign or one candidate. Protesters against the war in Vietnam shouted “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids do you kill today?” Today Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump trade assorted epithets.

What do we mean by political incivility? More importantly, what is at stake when incivility taints political discourse and citizen engagement? Politics is now, and has always been, about conflicting philosophies of governing and contentious policy proposals. Political civility is not the same as politeness or etiquette. Civility in politics is marked by mutual respect, dialogue and accountability. Civility in politics aspires to build policy consensus with meaningful cooperation and willingness to compromise. Without political civility, Americans will continue to view their government as dysfunctional, and citizens will become increasingly angry and alienated.

Unfortunately, the policy problems facing Americans today are complex and controversial, and complexity and controversy help create the conditions that breed political incivility. During President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Joe Wilson (R–S.C.) interrupted the President to shout “You lie.” Rep. Alan Grayson (D–Fla.) bellowed on the House floor that the Republican response to ACA was for the uninsured to “die quickly.” Sarah Palin foresaw the creation of “death panels” by the federal government.

Beyond these seeming intractable policy problems, what else accounts for the recent escalation, if not the eruption, of political incivility?

First, negative campaigning continues to rise and thrive with the “perpetual campaign.” The recent emergence of well-funded SuperPACs means groups not affiliated with a candidate can engage in deceptive and misleading ads designed to attack a candidate’s opponent while providing the veneer of non-coordination. While political scientists are divided as to the effectiveness of negative advertising in winning elections, the impact of these ads can be felt in the public’s growing cynicism and distrust in government.

Second, cable news outlets have become increasingly and unabashedly ideological. While Fox and MSNBC still offer news, their programming provides an “echo chamber” where conservatives and liberals only listen to their respective stations, creating and reinforcing ideological isolation. Additionally, use of social media, such as Twitter, results in reaction before reflection. Provocative political tweets are rebroadcast and recycled as news.

Third, partisan polarization continues to rise at an unprecedented rate. The Pew Research Center released its latest study in June of this year showing that 55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans were literally “afraid” of the opposing party. Even more disturbing, the percentages of Democrats and Republicans who viewed the opposing party as a “threat” to the country had increased by roughly 10 percentage points since their study in 2014. Fueling this polarization are divisive social issues, such as same-sex marriage, access to abortion and gun control. In addition, our country’s changing demographics and concerns over income inequality contribute to deep frustration and anger in the American electorate.

The causes of political incivility are varied and its consequences are unsettling. Any reduction in political incivility demands citizens who are critical thinkers as well as media with the same mission. It is heartening to know that at Davidson, we are conquering political incivility one day at a time and one course at a time. Our dedication to the liberal arts means we nurture deliberation and reasoned argument. Our dedication to diversity in all its facets may well provide the single best antidote to political incivility. Davidson students will be prepared for lives of leadership, service and citizenship.