Is There an Ethical Duty to Be Civil to Our Rivals?

AuthorBirdsong, Nicholas

War has been described as politics by other means. At a time when political divisions appear as bitter and personal as ever, the reverse may seem true: Politics is war by other means.

A survey released last year showed that 93% of Americans believe the nation has a civility problem. Around the same number of Republicans and Democrats agree that civility is vital to democracy, and that its absence may cause political gridlock, deter people from entering public service and decrease political engagement.

People who have disagreements are rarely nice about it, and in politics, maybe even less so. Policy divisions often involve controversial issues of significant public concern. Debates can be full of passion, complex underlying realities and competing perspectives.

Yet, respect can be shown even in the midst of fierce competitions.

During the 2008 presidential race, U.S. Senator John McCain defended his opponent, then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama, against the fearful and offensive statements of McCain's own supporters. In one instance he said, "I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let's make sure we are. Because that's the way politics should be conducted in America."

Chelsea Clinton, whose family has been in bitter personal conflict with President Donald Trump, chastised media outlets several times for their coverage of Trump's youngest son.

Social norms of courtesy, politeness and respect can help avoid the gridlock that plagues some divided legislative bodies. This may lead to policies beneficial for all sides, according to an NCSL report. Traditions of mutual respect between debating sides tend to enable productive compromises even among polarized legislatures.

Self-interest might also provide a motivation to be civil.

Intensely negative campaign strategies have been shown to lower the favorability ratings of all sides in an election. In some instances, the backfire from uncivil attacks may exceed damage done to a rival.

Even when uncivil criticisms work, they may do lasting harm to the public perception of...

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