Politics and Civility: A Recipe for Disaster?

Aaron Grebner
May 26, 2016 · 11 min read

Writers Note: This was originally written in March of 2011 for a college course.

“So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof”

John F. Kennedy

In the United States of America two parties have emerged as the dominant policy makers in the United States. The Democrat and Republican parties each have their own set of ideals and party goals that they want to push forward through legislation, and both sides believe that their plans and goals are the best for the country. However, sometimes their goals are at odds with one another, and when at odds these parties and their members clash and at times are bitter foes that seem to be hateful towards each other. Through some of the exchanges of party members it becomes clear that there is at times a lack of civility in American politics. There are plenty of famous examples of politicians insulting the other side, from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich calling Democrats, “the enemy of normal Americans”( Frank 498) to the anti-Howard Dean ad, “take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs”(Frank 501), and even the insult of Comparing President George W. Bush to Hitler. Even more recently an event that brought resurgence to the debate surrounding civility in American Politics is when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot meeting with constituents at a grocery store. The rhetoric used around Giffords came into question, like the use of “crosshairs” above Giffords congressional district.

Civility in politics is often debated and for years has been talked about. One claim that is made is that civility has gradually degraded over time because Republicans and Democrats are becoming more ideologically farther apart than they ever have been. Congressman Jim Leach said, “What civility requires is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on one another”. Psychologist and political-blogger Jim Taylor explains further that “civility is about something far more important how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior”. Is there really a way to bring civility back to Washington so our politicians can get work done and focus less on hating each other? Civility is wanted by most Americans when they elect their official because most Americans are tired of the gridlock that goes on in Washington that delays legislation. Also, politicians are elected leaders and they should be setting the example for the American public for how to lead and interact with one another when regarding politics. One way of restoring civility to politics is restoring compromise to Congress. Congress itself was created through the “Great Compromise” so it would make sense for the art of compromise to be present. Also, the leaders in Congress have to be more willing to work with the other side, and not just say they will, but actually try. Civility has eroded from our politics and the way to restore civility lies in restoring compromise and holding the leaders in charge in Washington accountable. As often as we complain about the lack of civility in politics, is there an argument that there has never been civility in politics?

There was one point in American history that it was easier for both sides to work together because there was less polarization in politics. On each side there was a caucus of moderate Democrats sometimes called “Blue Dogs” and even moderate Republicans. However, over time and even more recently, the caucuses of these members have dwindled to almost nothing in Congress much thanks to polarization. Senator Arlen Spector has stated there are enough “enough moderates [that] could fit into a telephone booth”. There is also that the debate of “the two Americas” (Frank 498) existing within the United States and expanded forms of media for a platform. The emergence of these problems has helped to accelerate the breakdown of civility in politics.

At one time it was easy for both sides to engage another because as author of Rude Democracy Juliet Eilperin states, “Democrats enjoyed a wide enough margin of control that they could afford to allow some defections in their ranks” (130) and “many Republicans were convinced they would remain permanently in the minority” (130). Senator Arlen Spector provides an example of this be stating that, “senators on both sides of the aisle engaged in collegial debate and found ways to find common ground on the nation’s pressing problems.” However, after the Republican take-over of Congress in 1992 things have changed however because members of Congress are obsessed with re-election and control of Congress. Senator Arlen Spector also states that campaigning against incumbents of the other party has also caused tension between members. Spector calls this this action, “eating or defeating your own is a form of sophisticated cannibalism.” Members of Congress are more likely to do this nowadays too. Members always endorse a new candidate or go to another state to show their support for a candidate. Spector believes that “partisanship has been increased by [this and] and other factors”. Political tensions and gridlock are destroying compromise, a fundamental art of politics. Without compromise it is almost impossible to pass legislation, like a budget.

With both sides unable to debate with another; lack of debate has led to increased polarization between the parties. Every issue is a major issue with the parties. Arlen Spector adds to this by saying, “Politics is no longer the art of the possible when senators are intransigent in their positions. Polarization of the political parties has followed” (53). Spector believes both parties have been as far away as possible from the center and that Republicans are even abandoning Ronald Reagan’s “Big Tent”. Spector also states that a vote that is geared toward the center can cost an incumbent their seat. (53). Polarization has forced the parties as far left and as far right as possible and being a candidate that favors the center can be costly toward their seat or party nomination for that seat. Two recent examples of this would Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Bennett of Utah. Both took center positions on TARP and were attacked for their positions and lost nomination from the Republican Party or a primary.

Another reason that we are more aware of the incivility in politics is that access and use of the media has increased and this country was founded with distrust in government. Jim Taylor believes that because of expanded forms of media we are more than ever aware of the uncivil discourse taking place in Washington. Jim Taylor writes, “due to the emergence of television, talk radio, and the internet, ‘squeaky wheels’ now have a means of making their voices heard by the millions”. Jim Taylor also places some of the blame of the uncivil discourse on Fox News and MSNBC and figures like Bill O’Reily and Keith Olbermann of their respective networks. The rise of these big cable networks, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, has created the ability for the viewer to view the news that fits his or her political preference. The news networks tend to report to the people that fit their ideological preference, and this had disturbed many journalists who try to report honestly. Terry McDermott adds to this with, “There is one overwhelming similarity among Fox, MSNBC, and CNN: whatever it is that dominates cable news, it is largely not journalism” (30). Cable networks also tend to attack people that disagree with them from Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person” segment to Bill O’Reily’s attacks, these segments show only opinions and very little news. However, people can take these opinions and use them as news. In research done by Jeffery Berry, “outrage tactics are largely the same for liberal and conservative media, conservative media use significantly more outrage speech than liberal media” (Berry, Sobieraj 2011). It is important to remember that while CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, report the news they also give their own opinions and these large networks can sway people’s opinions. Terry McDermott again agrees to this by saying, “Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast” (32). These networks can report what they want and in ways that appear to disagree or agree to their own opinions. While reporting the news with their own opinions at times, these networks can add to the incivility in politics at times. Learning to take caution to what cable networks report at times will help the tensions that arise from stories or what the faces of these networks say from time-to-time.

With the breakdown of the parties being able to work together, the breakdown of compromise has also occurred in Congress. Senator Arlen Spector believes that for some members of the Senate and probably even in the House, that “compromising” has become a dirty word. Congressman Jim Leach adds to the lack of compromise in Congress, “for years, politics has been considered the art of compromise, but for many of today’s political activist, compromise is an untenable concept”. For an entire entity created from compromise it is almost offensive in some regards that our members of government cannot work together. Restoring compromise will only be possible once party members will be able to cross the aisle and work with each other again. Elected officials can no longer compromise because they fear working with the other side will cost them their party seat. This phenomenon is greatly linked with the lack of civility in Congress currently. Elected officials fear working with the other side because such organizations like the Tea Party feed off Republicans not being conservative enough and as stated, politicians are obsessed with re-election. Republicans will not work with the other side if they fear the Tea Party will run a candidate against them if deemed not conservative enough. Senator Arlen Spector hopes that “more senators will return to greater independence in voting and crossing of party evident of thirty years ago”. It seems only the independence of party members of their party and more moderate candidates elected to office will return compromise to Washington.

Another way to help bring civility back to politics is to hold the party’s leaders accountable for their actions and inactions on civility and party rules that break down discussion and in effect, civility. Party leaders hold a lot of power in Washington. Party leader’s hold a lot of responsibility and need to be able to work with both sides so compromise can be obtainable. However, party leaders are sometimes reluctant to work together. Juliet Eilperin writes, “The men and women who are best equipped to make the House more open and accountable…appear to be the least inclined to do it” (Eilperin 135). Congressman Billy Tauzin in regard to the lack of party leadership working together said, “There is no institutional support for restoring comity and respect and order.” (Eilperin 136). If party leaders are unwilling to work together, how is it possible to hold them accountable for their lack willingness to cross the aisle and work with another member of Congress? The voter must be willing to hold the party leaders in Congress accountable and Congress Dick Gephardt agrees to this assessment, “The only way to get back to more collaborative atmosphere is for the people to demand it. The voters will ultimately judge if they’re getting what they want, or what they need” (Eilperin 136). Similarly, Arlen Spector believes that abuses of Senate rules allow the Majority Leader in the Senate to have the ability to stop amendment to bills. This practice basically stops debate on a bill and ultimately stops both sides being able to work on a bill. Arlen Specter called the practice, “tyrannical” and also that “the Majority Leaders protects his party colleagues from taking tough votes. Never mind that we were sent here and paid to make tough votes” (53). Party leaders and the rules the leaders use in the Senate and the House must make debate possible. Debate can lead to possible compromise. Party leaders working together is a strong sign to Americans that our government is capable of being civil and that working together is not just possible, but necessary.

Since the founding of the country American have had certain distrust with government. Thus being true, has there ever been a time with civility in American politics? The nation was founded in such a way that put limits on government, because people were weary of the government withholding certain rights from them. Of this fear is born a creed, that at times is anti-government and suspicion of power. Samuel Huntington wrote, “the distinctive aspect of the American Creed is its anti-government character, opposition to power and suspicion of government as the most dangerous embodiment of power are central themes of American political thought” However, if true this American Creed does not really state that is okay for civility to be non-existent in politics. It is important to remember that when watching media that we are aware of certain bias and that we hold politicians accountable that speak nastily while using any form of media. But, as the American creed shows, distrust with the government leaders can lead Americans to attack in an uncivil way, for example, protestors compared Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker “to Hitler and Middle Eastern dictators” (Jonnson). As President Barack Obama stated in Tucson, Arizona, “it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds” (87). Obama’s words are encouraging because it points out that our elected officials should not be insulting each other to pass legislation and the American people need to see their representatives carry out business in a well-mannered way.

Arlen Specter is more than right by saying, “Above all, we need civility” (54). Civility is very important in politics. It is essential because it allows our elected officials to act in a way that is a good example to the American public and provides a great way for our elected officials to debate and compromise on the tasks they were sent to Washington to accomplish. Even if being skeptical of government is normal, it does not mean that it should be done with hateful speech or despicable comparisons. Director of the civility institute, Brint Milward adds to this with, “In a great democracy, it’s important for people to hold fast to principles, but at the same time understand where they might be able to compromise” (Jonsson). To be a civil society we need compromise and need to hold our elected leaders accountable for their actions or inactions. It is their job to get work done and we must hold them accountable. Society also needs to be more aware of the news media and the effect they can have on our lives. It is important to remember to form our own opinions and not always take what some of these networks say for granted. Barack Obama said, “I believe we can be better” (88). If we remember the lessons that history has taught us and work toward compromise we will be able to bring civility back to politics.

Works Cited:

Eilperin, Juliet. Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.

Frank, Thomas. “The Two Nations.” From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text and Reader. Ed. Stuart Greene and April Ladninsky.

Leach, Jim. “Can we restore compromise and civility to politics?”. Christian Science Monitor 15 Dec. 2010: N.PAG. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

McDermott, Terry. “Dumb Like a Fox.” Columbia Journalism Review 48.6 (2010): 26–32. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Apr. 2011.

Obama, Barack. “In Christina We See All of Our Children.” Vital Speeches of the Day 77.3 (2011): 86–88. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Apr. 2011.

Sobieraj, Sarah, and Jeffrey M. Berry. “From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio, and Cable News.” Political Communication 28.1 (2011): 19–41. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Apr. 2011.

Spector, Arlen. “Above All, We Need Civility.” Vital Speeches of the Day 77.2 (2011): 51–54. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 2 Mar. 2011.

Taylor, Jim. “Politics: Is Civility Dead?” Psychology Today. 16, Nov. 2009. Web. 1 March 2011.

Aaron Grebner

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