Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint, see Point: Is Civility in American Politics Dead or Alive?
When Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter, belittled a Gold Star family and insulted deceased Senator John McCain for having been a prisoner of war, many Americans were understandably appalled and shocked. President Trump has publicly vilified individuals and groups of people in a way that no president has ever done before.
However, this offensive language and loss of civility in politics goes far beyond Trump. The increased lack of civility in politics and public discourse seems to be more of a symptom of a broken system than a cause. Endless money in politics, hyper-partisan gerrymandering, and social media without accountability are largely responsible for the decreasing civility we see today.
Trump’s atrocious words (and actions) toward undocumented immigrants and residents of certain countries seek to divide and create a constant “us vs. them” dichotomy. This extreme tribalism is not unique to Trump and has been used by political parties and politicians for centuries. In the last several decades, though, we’ve seen a steady erosion of decency and the way we talk about people with whom we disagree. The loss of civility goes beyond just partisan differences, though.
In the 1990s, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich “pioneered a style of partisan combat — replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories and strategic obstructionism” that eventually lay the groundwork for Trump. Gingrich defined people with whom he disagreed as the “enemy,” not someone with whom you worked. He created unflattering nicknames for his opponents, frequently treated compromise as a four-letter word, and viewed politics as a war for power.
Simultaneous to Gingrich’s rise, we saw huge increases in the amount of money that was spent in politics. Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United and McCutcheon have led to still more ways for big money to be spent in politics. As the costs of campaigns rose, members of Congress had to spend more time raising money to keep up.
They spent more time calling donors and less time working together in committees or socializing in Washington, especially as it became common practice not to have one’s family live in the D.C. area.
No longer did the children of Republicans and Democrats go to the same schools, play in the same sports leagues, or attend the same houses of worship. Members of the other political party no longer consisted of people to work with to pass bipartisan legislation; they became just the opposition party with whom you rarely had to interact. The less well that legislators know each other, the easier it is has become to call each other names and demonize each other.
One key example involved then-Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who infamously said that House Republicans’ health care plan meant they wanted Americans to “die quickly.”
Another key factor leading to the loss of civility in politics is hyper-partisan gerrymandering. Technological advances have allowed mapmakers to use demographic data to carve up neighborhoods and communities of interest to dilute their political power. The result? Politicians choose their voters instead of the other way around.
Whereas just 20 years ago, there were many more contested House elections, and as a result, more moderate members. Nowadays, around 85 percent of congressional districts are generally considered “safe” by political prognosticators in a typical election and highly unlikely to turn over. Many elected officials are therefore less incentivized to work together.
Because of gerrymandered districts, many members’ main concern is getting “primaried” by an extremist from their own party (not losing in a general election), which may cause a more extreme type of individual to run for elected office.
Social media — our modern public square where millions of Americans freely debate ideas — has also led to an increasing lack of civility. Some social media is anonymous, which can inspire users to post just about anything with essentially no consequences or accountability.
It’s also instantaneous. Instead of fostering reasoned deliberation, social media allows stream-of-consciousness typing, a few quick keystrokes, and little thought. The platforms themselves incentivize users to post the most divisive content with algorithms that will reward you with likes and shares for emotionally charged and controversial posts.
These tendencies can lead to name-calling and diatribes against people with whom we disagree, and the platforms themselves have largely abdicated their responsibility to keep their users safe from harassment.
While there’s no magic wand for re-creating civility in politics, one bill would significantly help. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which the House passed in March 2019, would get big money out of politics, stop partisan gerrymandering by creating independent redistricting commissions, and create accountability for ads on social media by requiring political ad disclosure.
However, legislation can only do so much. Until our political leaders, starting with the president, begin to set an example for all Americans on how to talk to each other and be respectful, our civil discourse will likely continue to worsen.