Share story

CALLING a young coed a “slut” on the radio is uncivil, as Rush Limbaugh recently did in disagreeing with Sandra Fluke over reproductive rights for women. So too is hollering “You lie!” at the president during his speech, as South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson did in disagreeing with Obama’s health-care bill. Occupy Wall Street loudmouths, tea-party crazies, vitriolic campaign ads … What has happened to civil discourse in America?

The rude, unruly nature of today’s political debate is a common lament heard from politicians, pundits and academics alike. The “incivility crisis,” as it is labeled, is blamed for partisan gridlock and the failure of our democratic institutions to address the nation’s most pressing challenges.

I dislike uncivil behavior, and I believe it says more about the louts who engage in it than those they seek to insult. But before concluding incivility threatens American democracy, let’s consider how the two are related.

To begin with, nostalgia for the kinder, gentler politics of the past is based on myth. Many previous periods in America were far worse than today. During the election of 1800, the partisan press called John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character” and Thomas Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw.” Opponents called John Quincy Adams a “pimp” during the election of 1828 and referred to Andrew Jackson as “Andrew Jackass” (which is how the Democratic Party came to adopt the donkey as its symbol).

During the run-up to the Civil War, Sen. Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, beating him with a cane on the Senate floor for a speech he gave against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. President Abraham Lincoln was dehumanized in the Southern press but also by Copperheads in the North; one Wisconsin newspaper opined, “Mr. Lincoln is fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism,” adding “the man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer.”

During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt was regularly accused of being “un-American,” a “communist” or worse by opponents of the New Deal. Father Charles Coughlin, the forerunner to today’s bombastic radio talk-show hosts, laced his attacks on FDR with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

American politics, the turn-of-the-century fictional character Mr. Dooley once quipped, “ain’t never been ‘beanbag.’ ”

What can we learn from past periods of incivility? First, incivility is a symptom, not the cause of political division. Previous periods were nearly always associated with what historians identify as critical elections or junctures in American democracy; periods that produced new political parties (the Democratic Party in the 1820s or the GOP in the 1860s) or major social movements advancing rights of the oppressed (working-class immigrants during the New Deal or women and African Americans during the 1960s). Impassioned, angry debate during such periods reflected deep divisions over the country’s future and what it meant to be American.

What are the causes of division today? For starters, wealth and income is more unequally distributed than at any time since 1932. That growing inequality accompanies a dramatic decline in social mobility. Americans born in low-income families today are less likely to move up the social ladder than at any time in the past 50 years, and less able to do so than counterparts in most other developed democracies around the world. The growing inequality in American wealth and opportunity drives bitter debates over taxation, government spending and social programs.

Changing demographics also cause deep divisions. The percentage of the foreign-born population in the U.S. has risen from 5 percent in 1970 to nearly 14 percent today, the highest level since the 1930s. And we are becoming a nation of minorities. Non-Hispanic whites now make up only 63 percent of the total population in the U.S. and will become a minority within a few decades. These demographic shifts create anxieties about the nature of American culture and identity, which in turn fuel angry debates over immigration, language, religion and other issues.

The polarization of wealth and the demographic transformations closely mirror the partisan polarization index used by political scientists to measure ideological division between political parties. In other words, these changes correlate closely with Republicans becoming more conservative and Democrats more liberal over the past 50 years.

There are other sources of division, too: ideological polarization caused by partisan reapportionment and the role of special interests in campaigns; the fragmentation and polarization of the media; and the replacement of traditional communities with lifestyle enclaves where Americans interact only with those of similar social class and belief systems. Addressing these substantive sources of political conflict will ultimately do far more to restore a more productive public discourse than worrying about the manners of our debates.

Worries about polite or acceptable political discourse also raise questions about context and power. In the past, uncivil behavior has often advanced democratic causes. Those who lack power often have no other way to press their rights. At a time when it was thought unfitting for women to speak publicly about politics, the suffragists of the 19th century were certainly uncivil. Fanny Wright was shouted down at Tammany Hall in 1836 by men who thought her very presence inappropriate.

Similarly, leaders of the modern civil-rights movement challenged Southern segregation with lunch-counter sit-ins, boycotts and violation of state laws. That was uncivil. Other groups lacking power — labor organizers, Native Americans, gays and others — have faced similar dilemmas: Either wait patiently for others to press for their rights within existing frameworks of proper behavior, or seek democratic reform themselves by challenging those frameworks.

Incivility also can be undemocratic. The Know Nothing Party during the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century, Eugene “Bull” Connor in the 1960s, all used tactics that were uncivil and undemocratic because they sought to exclude others from participation in American democracy.

Some forms of behavior are undemocratic by nature: silencing others through threats, intimidation or acts of violence; delegitimizing others by casting doubts on their citizenship or rights (i.e. labeling them “un-American”); or misleading and dishonest debate. These behaviors threaten democracy more than the occasional insult or angry outburst because they betray a core democratic responsibility. The willingness to engage in honest debate and lose on issues you care deeply aboutreaffirms your commitment to common citizenship.

It would be nice if we could all just get along. Democratic compromise is more easily achieved when we refrain from insulting and demonizing those we disagree with.

But American democracy has survived past periods of incivility. It will survive this, if we remain clear-eyed in addressing the substantive challenges dividing the country and reaffirm that what unites us as Americans is stronger than what divides us.

Cornell W. Clayton is director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute and professor of political science at Washington State University.