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Americans know there's a civility problem. Do they want to do anything about it?

July 02, 2017

The Tennessean

Surveys and polls are showing that people are concerned that incivility is rising greatly. That has an effect on Americans’ politics and ability to sustain democracy. David Plazas / Tennessean (Wochit)

Civility is in decline in the United States and Americans know it, but few think they can — or want to — do anything about it.

Surveys and polls taken over the last few months show that people are facing a harder time having polite political conversations with those who disagree with them.
Further, they are concerned that the growing incivility in politics — the screaming, the name-calling, the social media confrontations — leads to bullying, intimidation and, worse, violence.

The June 14 tragedy involving a former Bernie Sanders presidential campaign volunteer who shot and seriously injured people, including a member of Congress, at a House Republican baseball team practice outside Washington, D.C., is a manifestation of that concern.
A few days later The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote: “For more and more Americans, the other side isn’t merely misguided in the extreme. It’s evil in the absolute …”

Efforts hoping to turn the tide face an uphill battle as people are increasingly growing comfortable in their echo chambers or retreating from discussing politics all together save for when there is a tragedy.

These stances are dangerous for democracy, which is sustained by active participation in governance at the local, state and federal levels, and that often requires conversation, compromise and cooperation.
As this nation approaches the 241st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — the seminal founding document that established this nation’s right to be free of British monarchic rule — it is worth remembering that what has allowed this nation to thrive and survive is different people coming together for the best interests of the whole.

What is civility?

Civility is not about abandoning principles or acquiescing to louder voices, rather, it is about giving respect to viewpoints that do not fit one’s world view, and it is about listening and learning, because, to quote the legendary late Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker: “The other guy might be right.”

Multiple polls and reports over the last few months have affirmed the nation’s concern over this issue:

  • An iCitizen poll released June 8 showed that 90 percent of respondents said there was a great decline in civility and high numbers attributed that primarily to Congress, the news media and President Donald Trump
  • A CBS poll released June 19 reported that 68 percent of people said civility is getting worse. On the positive side, more than 70 percent say they see the other side as ‘people who disagree’ rather than ‘a threat’ to (their) way of life.
  • The 2016 Weber Shandwick “Civility in America” report documented growing levels of incivility since 2010 with most Americans calling it a “crisis” and 59 percent saying they quit paying attention to politics because of incivility.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse Board at the University of Arizona works to raise the tone of civil discourse and on June 23 called on Congress to adopt the civility pledge that freshmen lawmakers had taken earlier in the year.

This can be difficult in an environment where too many people are talking at each other.

Protesters are clashing with lawmakers at state capitols and at town hall meetings.

Extremists have used the threat of violence to keep voices that offend them off college campuses.

President Trump has not helped himself through vitriolic tweeting, including a pair of tweets Thursday in which degraded MSNBC journalist Mika Brzezinski’s appearance and intelligence.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have harshly criticized the president — a rare moment of agreement on Capitol Hill — but they should spend time finding common ground on policy issues.

What we must work against is the growing trend of tuning each other out.

Last fall’s Allegheny College/Zogby poll showed that whereas in 2010, 52 percent of respondents said they had tried to persuade someone to agree with their view on a political issue, that statistic sank to 33 percent in 2016.
Have we truly become so intolerant?

That’s not America. At least, it shouldn’t be.

Opinion and Engagement Editor David Plazas wrote this editorial on behalf of The Tennessean Editorial Board and the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee. Call him at (615) 259-8063, email him at or tweet to him at @davidplazas.