Lack of civility is undermining our political culture

Author: Sara Hagedorn - January 16, 2018 - Updated: January 16, 2018

Sara Hagedorn

The start of a new year — a time to reflect on past decisions and actions and make resolutions to do better in the new year. After a month of holiday festivities, we return to our work with renewed vigor.

As a political scientist, part of my work involves reading political news on a regular basis. On New Year’s Day, I was taken aback by a video posted on Colorado Pols, a left-leaning blog focused on statewide political commentary. It showed a group called Atlantis Adapt protesting at U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s Yuma home at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The group claimed it wanted to talk to the senator about Medicaid, and proceeded to chant and yell. According to the local law enforcement officers we can hear in the video, Gardner was home with his family, including his small children.

In an era of angry protests, name-calling, and lack of any sort of constructive dialogue between the left and right, this political theater in the Yuma streets is not the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It is simply the latest instance of the lack of civility in politics. And that is the problem. Are we as a society becoming not just numb to this type of behavior, but also accepting of it?

This is not just a feature of the left; that would be naïve and a flat-out falsehood. The right engages in protests and harassment of politicians as well. They resort to childish name calling, such as “libtard” and “democRATS.” They have made racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments (although these, too, are not exclusively conservative tactics). The Tea Party has a habit of cannibalizing their own if the politician seems too liberal, or in their words, a RINO (Republican In Name Only).

The incident in Yuma on New Year’s Eve was a microcosm of what has become the norm in political discourse, if we can call it that. Each side lobs insults at the other, no longer willing to sit down and have a constructive conversation about policy. Protestors belligerently and petulantly demand it is their First Amendment right to not only infringe upon someone’s private property, like in this situation, but also the other side’s freedoms of speech and assembly. This group claimed they were exercising their First Amendment rights to harass a family at home, and then they expressed surprise when the target of their hostility did not want to speak with them. But is disturbing the peace at midnight protected? What of their neighbors’ rights?

The lack of civility and negativity in politics is by no means a modern phenomenon, but many political scientists agree it has intensified over the last 30 years. What we as political scientists disagree on is the effects of such negativity. Some argue it drives voters away from the process in addition to decreasing our trust in government, while others say it increases emotional intensity and causes voters to go to the polls and learn more about the issues.

…(W)e are less and less able to come together at the policy table to compromise on what is best for our country. In fact, compromise has become a dirty word for both sides.

I argue it probably does all of the above, to different types of people, while only widening the political divide, the polarization, in our country. This means we are less and less able to come together at the policy table to compromise on what is best for our country. In fact, compromise has become a dirty word for both sides.

Political science also tells us having conversations and being exposed to those who think differently than us actually increases our tolerance. However, this is not what is happening. We are becoming more isolated in our social networks, discussing politics in silos. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that if someone thinks differently than us, they are not just wrong, but obviously immoral and evil. Unfortunately, we think that in order to have respect for someone’s ideas, they must agree with our way of thinking. That is not how it works. We can respect someone’s opinions AND also disagree. The group in Yuma would have been wise to try to sit down in a respectful manner and civilly discuss politics, while also respecting the senator if his views differed from theirs. But was that their goal, or the goal of any protestors?

Whatever the goal of the Adapt group, all of us can learn from their behavior. If we cannot find a way in the New Year to respect each other’s right to their policy views (which does not mean agreeing with them), there will be more of this type of action. Good people will no longer go into public service, and that is the real danger here. Qualified public servants will choose to sit out the midnight protests, the angry sit-ins, the name-calling, the harassment of their families to do something else.

Yes, our elected officials should be held accountable and questioned when they do something with which their constituents disagree. That is the magic of the republican form of government. Challenge them in elections; do not vote for them. But do not yell and scream and expect to be heard. Sit down, be respectful, and talk about policy differences and where compromise can be found.

Sara Hagedorn

Sara Hagedorn

Sara Hagedorn is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.