By Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Opinion Contributor
While politicians often go negative to win legislative fights or defeat opponents, most Americans say the heat of battle is no excuse for incivility.
It’s nearly impossible to find two people who are further apart politically than Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But recently, the unlikely allies found common ground in calling for a lifetime ban on former members of Congress becoming lobbyists. Soon after, Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas and Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii joined them, volunteering to be co-sponsors. Now, the Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz legislative teams are meeting to develop the specifics of a bill.
This isn’t the version of Congress that the country sees on cable news — where lawmaking is depicted as a zero-sum fight to see who wins and who loses. With all the negativity focused on Washington, it’s easy to believe that voters are more interested in the stories about food fights.
But the surprising fact about the compromise between Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz is that when you ask Americans what they want to see in Washington, they’re very clear: They strongly prefer common ground over fiery disagreements. And it isn’t even close.
Last month Weber Shandwick, with Powell Tate and KRC research, released its newest Civility in America poll of over 1,000 adults and 100 teens 16-17. The bottom line: They agree that civility among our elected officials, at all levels, including the presidential level, is important (92% and 91%, respectively). Republicans, Democrats and independents alike resoundingly believe that their elected officials should maintain cordial working relationships with their fellow legislators.
It goes beyond platitudes. Whether it’s a legislator in office or a politician running for the highest office in the nation, constituents want their leaders to be civil, no matter the circumstances. Elected officials often accept the political need to abandon civility in the middle of a high-stakes fight or when it’s time to go negative in a campaign. But the results show that large majorities feel differently: 63% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans disagree with the statement that “people must be uncivil to ensure that government officials pass or defeat legislation they don’t like.”
The 2016 presidential election was a bitter fight, and that ugly rhetoric has defined Washington in the years since. Although we are over a year from November 2020, the name-calling has already kicked into high gear. In the past few weeks alone, President Donald Trump has called former Vice president Joe Biden “sleepy,” Sen. Bernie Sanders “crazy” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren “angry” as he has set his sights on 2020 Democrats. During the Democratic debate in June, Sanders called Trump a “phony,” a “pathological liar” and a “racist.”
Political differences are stopping conversation
Americans are all too aware that the ramifications of political incivility extend beyond Capitol Hill and into our own neighborhoods and our own families. In the past year, 50% of Democrats, 38% of Republicans and 35% of independents have stopped talking to someone because of differences over politics. It’s heartening that Americans are speaking out loudly to say they want to live in a country governed by civility. But we are far from that reality right now.
The United States system of government depends on civility and reaching across the aisle. Our country doesn’t function unless our leaders can set aside their differences and find common ground, as Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz did on lobbying. Moments like this seem to be few and far between, and Americans want more of them.
As the 2020 presidential campaign accelerates, civility will continue to be tested. With voters overwhelmingly in favor of a more civil Washington, we’re calling on elected officials to rise to the occasion. But it’s just as important that voters speak out and demand more of the people, political parties and institutions that can shape our discourse. It will take a concerted effort at every level of government and civil life to course-correct. The future of our democracy depends on it.
Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer is the executive director emerita of the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.