|In this Q&A, Temple University author Susan Herbst discusses civility and incivility, the topic of her new book, Rude Democracy|
|Q: You state outright that “the gap between our language about civility and the real nature of American political discourse and practice is at least as wide as it has ever been.” What do you think accounts for this gap?
A: I think much of the gap is rooted in America’s founding ideas and rhetoric. The ideals expressed by Thomas Jefferson and others are just that—ideals. We were all brought up on these extraordinarily high-minded documents, and it is difficult for any democracy to “live up to” abstract idealism. Hence the gap.
Q: You focus much of your book on examining Sarah Palin and Barack Obama on the 2008 campaign trail. Why was this political rivalry the best contest for analyzing civility and incivility?
Q: You describe civility as “strategic tool or a weapon” in politics. Why are politicians so inclined to wield incivility, which you claim “is destructive and blocks proper democratic debate”? Is negativity really more powerful in communicating a point (about an opponent)?
Q: You point fingers at the media and their “take-no-prisoners” approach when covering the 2008 campaigns. Do you feel the journalists’ quest for headlines is provoking this bad/incivil/undemocractic behavior?
Q: You argue that if we listen and be respectful—and engage constructively—even if/when we disagree, civility can be restored. Why are people so quick to be uncivil and what steps can be used to recover it?
Q: If our politicians—and by extension, the media—are more civil, do you think this “good” behavior will trickle down to the rest of American society? Or do you think that Americans are more civil and set better examples than our politicians and media?
Q: Sarah Palin has been a target by journalists for her speeches, rhetoric, and emotional connections with audiences. You describe her as “one of the shrewdist strategic users of both civility and incivility.” She was an impressive orator, yet often castigated for her comments. Rude Democracy offers a rather balanced view of Palin. Why did you take this approach?
Q: Do you think that ideological commentators like Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann are good for democracy, even if they may go too far at times? They do engage people in politics and get people talking about issues…
Q: Your example featuring Barack Obama—specifically, his speech at Notre Dame—explains how we might locate civility in debates where the subjects generate passionate, even hurtful emotions. What lessons does Obama offer the public about finding a common ground and being civil?
Q: Your last chapter in Rude Democracy considers college students and political arguments. You state that today’s young adults are unhappy with civility as it exists today. Do you think this generation, raised on the Internet, is capable of making the changes we need?