On Civility and Incivility in American Politics

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?
A: The 2008 campaign was ideal for studying civility because of its emotional flavor, which brings out both the best and worst in American politics. And the intensity of Internet communication boosted these emotions more than we could have predicted.

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)?
A: Research has shown that negative campaigning does work, which is why we see so much of it. We have gotten into a bind where positive campaign rhetoric is often empty and banal. Negative campaigning, while disturbing, does often focus on issues. What we need to stake out is a political discourse that is exciting and substantive at the same time.

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?
A: Journalists can be blamed for fueling some of the incivility we see, but they take their cues from political actors and citizens. As long as Americans tune in to rants and political attacks, journalists will keep focus on these incidents, no matter how unproductive. Media survive by keeping us engaged, and their profit orientation is no different than other industries striving for financial success.

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?
A: I don’t know that people are prone to incivility. But they do lack the tools to be passionate and substantive at the same time when they debate. It’s more a matter of learned behavior than anything.

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?
A: The models at the top have to be strong; Americans look to leaders, journalists, and even celebrities to figure out the bounds of public behavior. We citizens are not sheep! But we do a surveillance of culture, and how famous people act does matter in setting the tone.

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?
A: I do believe that Palin was degraded due to her gender, in much the same way that Hillary Clinton was demonized. Men of passion—agree with them or not—simply do not suffer the sort of treatment that women candidates still do.

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…
A: I don’t know that they are particularly helpful, as we try to build a more civil democracy, but they aren’t really doing any serious damage either. If Americans can become better debaters, and argue with substance, they’ll be adept at separating the wheat from the chaff, when it comes to televised ideologues. It’s really up to us—as responsible citizens—to figure out what is a good or bad argument; Fox and MSNBC, on the other hand, are trying to make money, not democracy.

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?
A: He models intelligent argument so very well, and lays out why it is vital and difficult to debate, with dignity and passion. His challenge is that it is hard to focus on these matters when disasters rule the news—the economy, the BP leak, and other urgencies. Finding common ground is a long-term prospect.

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?
A: Yes, I am very optimistic about our young people. My undergraduates are full of life and optimism. They are up to the challenge of greatly improving American democracy if we give them the tools and inspiration. They will find the path forward.


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