Our institutions of deliberative democracy are not functioning optimally. Much of what’s broken can be traced to a rise in partisan tribalism and an associated decline in civility in the public square. To even the most casual observer of American politics, that is obvious and has, unfortunately, become the accepted or at least expected status quo. Improving civility in government is to the optimist a daunting task, to the pessimist a fool’s errand.
I submit that we can, and for the future of our states and our nation, we must do better.
It is a good thing that the discussion of public policy elicits a strong, and in many cases, emotional reaction from most citizens. This energy can yield positive outcomes when citizens have productive outlets for their passion, such as grassroots political involvement and engagement in the policymaking process. But it is too often misapplied when it becomes manifest as a personal animosity toward the individual who has a differing view from our own. Simply stated, we should be able to be ideological adversaries without being personal enemies.
We should not make the mistake of thinking that things are worse now than ever before. Incivility in public affairs is as old as politics itself. We also should be realistic; we can’t “fix” civility any more than we can “fix” world peace or hunger, but all of these are worthy endeavors to which great efforts should be devoted.
Campaigning in the modern era has emphasized party lines and party loyalty constructed on adherence to narrow, but emotionally charged ideological issues. Paired with the mass media nature of modern campaigns, a mentality of “win at any cost” has caused deep divides that last long after the last vote is counted. The high emotions and hurt feelings of campaign season lead to even more partisan tribalism and a desire for retribution. This becomes a cycle that leaves little room for building trust, which is necessary for the constructive conversations that in turn are necessary to solve the complex problems facing our society.
My observation is that governing has become too much about ideology and not enough about
analysis and problem solving. There is also a toxic notion that has permeated our public discourse that compromise is weakness. I would argue that compromise is one of the essential tools statesmen and stateswomen use to solve problems in a democracy. Improved civility and the resultant productive dialogue is the solution to these problems and many others.
Civility is not just about being nice to each other; it’s about delivering better outcomes to the people we serve.
Though incivility in politics is not a new problem, it is our problem now, and our generation of leaders has an opportunity and a duty to proactively address the issue. I’ve made this a priority myself because of the obvious need for improvement and my sincere belief that we can make things better. I’m glad to be actively engaging with outstanding organizations that are focused on ways to improve government through civil conversation.
The call to action is simple: Demand civility from your elected leaders and work conscientiously to model constructive civil behavior in your own public interactions. While those of us who seek elected office must be held to the highest standards, this job is bigger than just us. Citizens have a responsibility to do their part to maintain civility. There should be a particular emphasis from those who have a special level of public trust because they work in journalism, academia or any other field that makes them an opinion leader.
Civility is more than just having good manners; without it, our system of government cannot function effectively. As citizens, it is our responsibility to expect better from our leaders and from each other. We all benefit when improved civility becomes a mutual priority.