One can always find instances of incivility in American politics to refute those who charge that hypernegativity in political discourse is a recent phenomenon including the anger and dislike among the Founding Fathers.
I was an observer in the Senate more years ago than I would like to remember when Wayne Morse of Oregon called Homer Capehart of Indiana a “rancid tub of ignorance,” and when William Saxbe of Ohio told Robert Byrd of West Virginia that the best thing to come out of his state was an empty bus.
The normal colloquy, however, was still far tamer than that, and even the most heated debates often ended with the partisans chatting amiably in the cloakroom. Presidents appearing at joint sessions were treated with the utmost respect, with no one accusing the chief executive of lying, as President Barack Obama was during the last State of the Union address.
That low-water mark in disrespect brought not only an apology from the lawmaker who uttered it and the leaders of his party, but a sudden realization that politics has become a thoroughly nasty business.
The brutal attacks on President Abraham Lincoln in his first campaign and the often-vicious stump attacks on the characters of opponents in the rough-and-tumble of rural American politics were sensational. But today’s atmosphere of belligerence and hatefulness seems pervasive.
A few months ago, a study by Allegheny College surveyed 1,000 randomly selected Americans and discovered that 95 percent believe civility is a key element for a healthy democracy.
The survey found that 87 percent suggest it’s possible for people to disagree about politics respectfully. Nearly 50 percent of Americans surveyed believe there has been a decline in the tone of politics in recent years.
Citizens paying close attention to politics are four times more likely to say the tone has become worse, the study found. Researchers discovered that Americans want compromise on a range of policy issues, and women are more likely to label recent public political behaviors as uncivil.
Interestingly, almost all Americans are put off by the lack of courtesy. Some 40 percent of Americans believe that the least civil politicians should “suffer a trip to the woodshed,” the study said. Thirty-two percent say politicians should take an Emily Post manners class and 16 percent say they should retake kindergarten.
While blame for the decline in civility is spread widely, the study found, political parties and the media are seen as the worst culprits, not surprising given the 24/7 barrage of news and commentary and the daily diatribes of the national Republican and Democratic committees.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.