An Essay: Incivility Not A Problem; A Crisis


People are not sure what to call it—excessive partisanship, bad behavior, negativism, gridlock, polarization, stridency, intolerance, ideological extremes.

It is collectively, incivility and it is, arguably, worse now than it has been in American history.

Something must be done about it.

Pundits such as the Washington Post’s George Will and the Washington Examiner’s  Michael Barone have argued otherwise.  Barone, for example, recently bemoaned the bemoaners of what he called ‘hyperpartisanship’ in American politics, suggesting that the problem is not as bad as it may seem and attempts to rectify it in the past have just made matters worse.

“These days,” he wrote. “you hear academics and pundits bemoaning hyperpartisanship of our politics. It has never been worse, some say.”

(I always wonder who the “some” or “many” are. Journalists quote them incessantly. But I digress.)

Barone disagreed with the ‘somes’, citing the 1880 Adams-Jefferson race as worse, and the Burr-Hamilton and Andrew Jackson-Charles Dickenson duels as examples of more despicable behavior than we have today. He could have also cited Jackson’s 1828 Presidential race against John Quincy Adams during which Jackson’s wife Rachel was called a whore and they, bigamists. Jackson blamed her death on the ugliness of the campaign.   Jackson wouldn’t have been surprised by the  TV ad implying that Mitt Romney was complicit in the death of a Kansas City woman, whose husband lost his job because Bain Capital closed his plant.

Believe what you will about it being worse than ever. I think it is, with the possible exception of some years leading up to the Civil War. It isn’t just one striking incident that makes the difference anymore, although the ad about the woman’s death is just plain barbaric. In the past two decades there has been a sustained parade of every-escalating incivility. And, in this election year, the gutter couldn’t be more crowded.

In just the last month, President Obama and his surrogates have accused Mitt Romney of the death, committing a felony, not paying any income taxes, tax evasion, racism, being rich and mean to his dog. Obama has been accused of faking his birth certificate, killing the work requirement in welfare, harboring a terrorist sympathizer in the State Department, paying off supporters with government contracts, suppressing the military vote, and lying about a whole host of things.

But what’s the pundits’ point?

Does it have to be the worse before we do something about? Have we not matured at all since 1800?  Should we not judge today’s behavior by a different standard than 200 years ago? Are we not better?

Barone missed the target on another aspect of the ‘hyperpartisanship’ discussion. Partisanship is a real problem but it is not the real target. He should have fixed his crosshairs on the broader, wider, more pervasive and more threatening problem of political and social incivility. It is the reason partisanship is on steroids.

Unfortunately, pundits and politicians don’t address incivility in politics because it is hard to define, and therefore hard to measure. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania defines incivility by using violations of congressional rules and procedures as a gauge; another organization measures it by monitoring news accounts of unseemly political behavior; columnist Kathleen Parker describes it as bad manners.

Ray Smock, former House historian, dismisses these attempts to measure civility:

“We need a new way to measure civility and dysfunction than the limited historical anecdotes of the past or the feeble attempts of social and political scientists to count things, make charts, and declare civility in Congress to be better, worse or about the same,” he wrote in October of 2011. “Despite the brawls of past history I maintain that the civility in Congress, on both bodies, but especially in the House, is at one of the lowest ebbs in congressional history. It is a crisis that should concern all Americans,” he said.

Maybe he would appreciate the work of two University of Colorado professors who concluded that civility is, in essence “constructive confrontation.”

Civility and its antonym don’t need exact definitions for the public to know what it finds unacceptable in our political discourse, as Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the University of Arizona’s National Institute on Civil Discourse, points out.

To narrowly define it, just makes it more difficult to address. Defining it too broadly renders the discussion less meaningful.

Defining civility can’t be defined with statistics or measuring sticks; it can only be done with judgment.

You know it when you see it. And, according to research, most Americans seem to.

They believe the lack of civility is destroying our political process. Research commissioned by Weber Shandwick found that 63 percent of Americans think incivility is a major problem that complicates the resolution of major issues and deters qualified people from entering public service. Another survey by U.S. News found that 89 percent think civility is a serious problem. A majority of Americans expect it to get worse.  Eighty percent think campaigns are uncivil. A USA today study in 2010 found that 61 percent of Americans think TV news is pushing politics to be less civil.

It’s not just the public that believes incivility is a problem. The Institute of Politics at Harvard, the Annenberg Center, the Institute on Civil Discourse, the Byrd Center at Shepherd University, the Congressional Institute, the Aspen Institute, the Center for civil Discourse of the McCormick Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts, the Congressional Management Foundation, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the latest, the—are you ready for this?—the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California, are just a few of the reputable organizations committing their resources to restoring civility to the public square.

Incivility has infected our body politic like a cancer. It is not a problem. It is a crisis. It renders our political leaders and policy makers unable to govern. It discourages good people from running for office. Those who do get so boxed in to rigid promises, pledges and commitments, by the time they take office they are politically impotent. It diminishes the quality of our public servants and makes it almost impossible for them to do their jobs. Our government and our political process are broken because good politics and good governance cannot take place in a hostile, angry, divisive environment in which the rules of decorum, decency and collaboration are ignored. We’ve even gotten to the point where lying, itself, is no longer a political liability. We are living in an age when lying is called factual selectivity; when we convince ourselves that what we say is true or true enough, regardless of its veracity.

Columnist Michael Gerson observed in July that political polarization “causes some to abandon civic engagement in disgust, and others to join angry ideological insurrections. In Congress, it adds to the obstructive power of cohesive partisan blocs…”

Look no further back than the yet unfinished 112th Congress. Members of what was once a great deliberative body, couldn’t pass a farm bill or a transportation bill,  or any of 12 appropriation bills. The Postal Service is $5 billion in debt, but they couldn’t agree on a reform bill. Our country is continually under assault from cyberspace, but they couldn’t agree on a cyber security bill. They are still facing harsh deadlines on the expiration of almost 80 tax provisions. They haven’t dealt with the alternative minimum tax, Medicare payments to doctors, and a soon-to-be-breached debt ceiling.  Welfare reform is two years late.  They couldn’t agree on tax and spending reforms in 2011, so they copped out and created a mechanism called sequestration that will produce a trillion dollars in indiscriminate cuts in government programs if nothing is done.

Blaming Congressional inaction, the President has embarked on a dangerous course of changing government by executive fiat, removing government one step further away from the prerogatives of the people. The most used expression in Washington is “kicking the can down the road,” the euphemism for failure.

Meanwhile, the country is still muddling through the slowest economic recovery in history, with 23 million people still unemployed or underemployed and millions more suffering from the anxiety of the unknown, worrying about whether their pensions are safe, paying for college educations, paying the rent, keep their homes out of foreclosure, and even putting food on the table. Survey research has found for the first time that  people don’t believe their children will be better off than they.  Respect for the institutions of government is as low as it has ever been.

That is the human toll of incivility and a government frozen in time.

This is not normal and it should not be allowed to become the ‘new normal.’

We must change both climate and behavior.

There are three fundamentals of change, inextricably linked to one another:  politics, the media and public attitude.   One cannot undergo change without the others.

There are probably not a lot of starkly right and wrong answers on how to bring about serious change, but there are plenty of choices. Here are some:

On the political front, we need to change the rules and procedures that govern Congressional action, particularly the restrictions on participatory democracy like the filibuster in the Senate, and the rules that dictate how legislation is considered in the House.

The practice of gerrymandering congressional districts, which predetermines who can and can’t run for office, must change. National campaign financing practices that disenfranchise local voters must be reformed.  We should even begin to challenge the excessive control of political parties over the governing process, as proposed by former Congressman Mickey Edwards in his new book, The Parties Versus the People.

There are many other inhibitors to politicians working together, deliberating honestly and making decisions collaboratively. Some of it is as basic as putting members of Congress together more often in bipartisan and personal setting where they can get to know each other and work with each other on a different plain.

In the media, those people who want to engage in the political process need more outlets that offer facts and information over opinion and talking heads that yell at each other. They need more light and less heat. The media should distinguish between infotainers and journalists, and insist on coverage of real issues like the economy, trade and energy development, rather than pet dogs, painted rocks, income tax returns, birth certificates, garage elevators, and family vacations.  Don’t tell me real news and real information can’t be made to be profitable.  I don’t buy it.

The media need to put aside the bias, silence the empty-headed antagonists, quit trying to incite riots, confirm their facts, tell us who their sources are, quit interviewing each other, refuse to cover rumors and innuendo, and quit promoting their own books and television shows. They need to focus less on igniting passions and more on stimulating the mind, informing the intellect, so that people are better able to do what needs done, not only in politics, but in their daily lives.

Most importantly, the American people need to take control of the government for which they are responsible.   Benjamin Franklin, leaving Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, made clear the public’s role. When asked by a woman who wanted to know what came out of the constitutional convention,  Franklin said:  “A Republic, madam,if you can keep it.”

It is ours to keep or lose.  It is, ultimately up to the people to exercise oversight over all, the institutions of government and politics and the media.  That means re-establishing the values on which they want government to function and enforcing them. If survey research is correct and most Americans want good governance, civility, problem-solving and collaborative politics, then they have to elect people with the courage to compromise. It doesn’t matter whether you want government smaller or government bigger, policy makers and politicians have to act in order to reach those goals. They can’t act unless they reach consensus.  They can’t reach consensus unless they compromise. They can’t compromise when the political system is gridlocked by gross incivility and ideological stridency. There’s a choice to be made.  Civil discourse is essential to reaching solutions, whether you’re in national government or at the kitchen table.

Ohio Senator James Garfield tried to explain that to a divided and rancorous Republican convention in 1880 in his nomination of Senator John Sherman for President. What he said to the delegates applies  to those who have turned this 2012 campaign into a back alley brawl 130 years later.

He described the convention as a “human ocean in a tempest.  “I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man. But I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured… Final actions, he said can only be determined when conditions are calm and the true measure of public opinion can be seen.    the conventioneers understood what he was trying to say.  They rejected Sherman, Grant and Blaine and nominated him.

When will we, a more mature people, ultimately responsible for the governance of the Republic, demand that the tempers be quieted and the sea be calmed, and the character and human respect befitting the country be restored to the conduct of our public business?

It had better be soon.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.

3 thoughts on “An Essay: Incivility Not A Problem; A Crisis

  1. Carol Johnson Rubsam

    you, John, seem to know quite a lot. well said. It is more than just incivility invading our society. It is the inability of each individual to respect the opinions of others even though they do not agree with ours. And “the Media” not only fosters but indeed, encourages that disrespect. After all, in teh eyes of the media, it is incivility, not civility, which makes an article “newsworthy”. You are right in that human nature will not change. We are more interested in the non-truth as it will often be more spectacular. So perhaps it is time for “journalists” to step up and take responsibility for vetting what gets published, whether an ad or a story, whether in written format, or network, or web based, and require only the facts.

  2. John N. Assuras

    Excellent piece, Mike … while I agree that politics, the media and public attitude are separate concerns inextricably linked for change to occur, it seems to me that the general public is so overwhelmingly inundated by news … not only because of the ubiquity of news sources, but also the speed with which news is delivered, that the media may be the main concern. In my opinion, “journalism” these days may be the main culprit in disseminating the hatred, misconceptions, deceit and sensationalism on both sides … sometimes “news” is not really news, but merely gossip or worse. Human nature will never change, and so while I also agree that incivility may seem to be getting worse, it is probably a function of our times/progress (if you can call it progress) that we are made so much more aware of it … again, because of the speed with which news is delivered these days … but, what the hell do I know?

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