Incivility and an Inability to Govern

There’s an interesting symposium on political civility in a recent issue of PS: Political ┬áScience and Politics. The articles wrestle with some foundational questions: what is the difference between the sort of argumentation that illuminates differences and is an inevitable part of democratic discourse and rhetoric that “crosses the line”? What do we mean by incivility?

The consensus seemed to be that incivility is rudeness or impoliteness that violates an agreed social standard.

I’m not sure we have agreed social standards in this age of invective, but surely attacks that focus on, and disrespect, persons rather than positions should count as uncivil. An example of civility in political argument might be Dick Lugar’s often-repeated phrase to the effect that “that is a matter about which reasonable people can differ.” (Hard to imagine Mr. Mourdock, who has taken pride in incivility and intransigence, making such a statement.)

The contributors offer a variety of perspectives on the definitions and causes of today’s nasty politics, but one of the most trenchant observations came from a Professor Maisel of Colby College, who attributes the gridlock in Washington and elsewhere to “partisan one-upmanship expressed in ways that do not show respect for those with differing views.” As he notes (referring to Erik Cantor)

If your will is to prevent legislation from passing, to prevent the president’s agenda from moving forward, to work the system to your political advantage, then lack of civility works.

In other words, if your over-riding motivation is simply to beat the other guy–to keep the President from a second term, as Mitch McConnell famously admitted–and if that motivation outweighs any concern for the public good, governing is impossible.

The reason politicians no longer “respectfully disagree” with each other, Professor Maisel points out, is that they do not in fact respect the views of their opponents. They hardly know them. The days when Congressional families lived in Washington and socialized–when their children went to school together, and their spouses carpooled or otherwise interacted–are long gone. It’s easy to demonize people you don’t know.

Add to that an even more troubling aspect of today’s politics, a disregard for fact and truth, enabled by partisan television, talk radio and the internet. Survey after survey shows that people on the Left and Right alike get their “news” from sources that validate their biases. Worse, we have lost the real news, the mainstream, objective journalism that fact-checks, that confronts us with inconvenient realities. In such an environment, it becomes easier to characterize those with whom we disagree as buffoons or worse, unworthy of our respect.

When political discourse is so nasty, and regard for truth so minimal–when the enterprise of government has more in common with a barroom brawl than a lofty exercise in statesmanship–is it any wonder that so many of our “best and brightest” shun politics?

Government is broken, and we need to fix it. Unfortunately, the symposium contributions didn’t tell us how to do that.


  1. Incivility is not only the ugliness, misrepresentation, blatant lies, total disrespect and attempts to discredit anyone in opposition on the political scene that we witness daily. It is being unable to hold a discussion, conversation, exchange of ideas with family or friends of many years without hostility and disrespect from them for you as a thinking adult. I’m sure we have all received the racist, unfunny jokes and lengthy diatribes against President Obama; whether they use his name or not, he is the primary target today. I grew up in a staunch Republican family surrounded by racist, bigoted, narrow-minded neighbors. I didn’t understand their hostility as a child and don’t understand it today. People I have known for 65 years cut off contact after I researched incorrect information about President Obama and the government in general that they forwarded to me without checking facts. I didn’t lose a very good friend, but they did. I remained civil and respectful, carefully read their views and responded with my views and research results. I haven’t missed their misguided hostility and racism and my life has moved on. Fortunately; the personal side to incivility is of no matter in today’s presidential campaign, it is however vital in the outcome of this campaign because the results of this election will make or break the future of this country. Senator Lugar’s wise words should be heeded and repeated for “reasonable people can differ” and should.

  2. What credence is there in accusations of “incivility and intransigence” from a website that regularly makes latent and blatent accusations of racism against anyone who disagrees on policy?

    We might as well try to agree on what the prettiest picture is in the museum.

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