Americans want civility in politics
Watching the hyperpartisan impeachment unfold in Congress, it is no wonder public faith in government is reaching historic lows. The petty rancor on the House floor and the never ending slew of vicious tweets by President Trump are a sign that civility today is on life support. In fact, the demise of civility is one of the very few things that almost everyone seems to agree on. The latest annual survey released by Weber Shandwick finds that nearly 70 percent of Americans feel we have a serious problem with civility. Yet despite these gloomy indicators, there are plenty of reasons to believe that comity is not dead and trust in government can be restored.
It helps to take the long view. The Founding Fathers saw that conflict and division inevitably lay at the heart of our democracy, and they set out to balance a range of inherent tensions in the drafting of the Constitution, including the rural versus urban, states versus federal, legislative versus judicial. The Founding Fathers believed that conflicts would ultimately be resolved by the people, and their faith in us has been rewarded so many times in the more than two centuries since the Constitution was ratified.
Rising above our political differences has never been easy. However, even in the highly polarized climate today, we are reminded that transcending our political divisions is possible. Consider the improbable friendship of George Bush and Michelle Obama. The political viewpoints of the former president and the former first lady in various ways could not be further apart. Yet the two have forged a warm relationship throughout the years. “We disagree on policy but we do not disagree on humanity. We do not disagree about love and compassion,” Obama said of their friendship.
This very sentiment of shared values resonates with a significant portion of the Americans. For all the anger and divisiveness that is laid bare on social media and on cable networks hour after hour and day after day, there is a yearning for civility across our political discourse. In the Weber Shandwick survey, about half of the respondents said they will choose to ignore people in their lives who are acting uncivilly or they will choose to remove themselves from those situations. This reveals a genuine appetite to create experiences for respectful and authentic political discussion.
When given the right opportunities, Americans will hash out their political differences in respectful and productive ways. Over the last seven years, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has held training sessions and forums, interacting with some 60,000 people from all backgrounds on a range of crucial issues, from immigration to climate change, to create understanding across differences and to bring about positive solutions.
These efforts suggest that for all the despair and alienation that has been induced by decades of hyperpartisanship and exacerbated by the Trump era, there is a way forward. It begins with individuals embracing civility by making a choice to engage with those with whom they do not agree and not defaulting to reflexive distrust. If you do not believe this is possible, take a look at this documentary series that demonstrates what happens when a group of divided people around the country come together to better understand one another and to bridge their political differences.
Naysayers will claim our current political discourse is irreparably broken and the unfolding impeachment with its mostly party line votes proves that reaching across the aisle can no longer happen. But this negative perspective, which is endlessly stoked on social media, fails to take into account another reality. Americans are as hungry as ever to connect and engage. That hunger, along with a shared sense of civic responsibility, has sustained the republic for more than two centuries. In this holiday season when we pause to reflect and consider, it is time for all of us to step up and once again demonstrate that the people are better than our politics.
Carolyn Lukensmeyer is the founder of America Speaks and the executive director emerita of the National Institute for Civil Discourse in Washington.