Civility: what will it take to rebuild the respectful tone once common in state capitols?

Author:Andrews, Angela
Position:LEGISLATURES
 
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There's an epidemic of incivility in America. It's everywhere. Just read the comments on almost any blog, news story or social media post. Watch the commuter traffic on any weekday morning. Better yet, try discussing the presidential election with a coworker or an in-law.

It's practically impossible to avoid anonymous offensive language, dangerous road rage or rude conversation. Incivility seems to have permeated all aspects of daily life--including life at the state capitol.

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The Institute for Civility in Government defines civility as "more than just politeness, though politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking (and finding) common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one's preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements."

A record high 69 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. has a major civility problem, with 75 percent of them saying incivility has increased to crisis levels and 56 percent expecting it to rise further in the next few years, according to the seventh annual Civility in America poll conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research. The poll also found that 79 percent of Americans believe the 2016 U.S. presidential election was uncivil, and 97 percent believe it is important for the U.S. president to behave civilly.

A Necessary Element

Incivility, however, is no newcomer to the political arena. And not everyone views it as a bad thing. "A dislike of political rancor is at heart a dislike of democracy," Bruce S. Thornton, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, writes in "Three Cheers for Political Incivility."

"Given the wide variety of conflicting interests, ideologies and character among the citizenry," he says, "the public deliberation that lies at the heart of democratic policymaking has always been rough, vulgar and insulting, often at a level far beyond what we today call the 'politics of personal destruction."'

Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley agrees. "The last thing we need in American politics is more civility," he writes in an essay titled "In Defense of Incivility." "What we need is more focused anger. Anger begets debate and debate begets change.... Liberty is often messy and, yes, uncivil. Freedom is supposed to be disorderly."

"Every decade of American history has been filled with political speech of the sort we now decry," Thornton points out. In 1800, for example, Founding Fathers John Adams and

Thomas Jefferson duked it out in the one and only contest between a president and his vice president. The campaign quickly got dirty, writes Kerwin Swint, professor of political science at Kennesaw State University and the author of "Mudslingers:...

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