The 2023 National Law Day theme of Cornerstones of Democracy; Civics, Civility, and Collaboration is a strong reminder of a new state of American politics and law. This year’s theme invoked a concerned message in support of rebuilding trust in our nation’s institutions and leaders, as well as regaining respect and willingness to collaborate with opposing views from one’s own . In an era of growing political divide in the United States and worldwide, the underlying sentiment between opposing countrymen has evolved from disagreement to disdain. The meter of social courtesy has moved in a direction that applauds hyper-critical commentary with little room for compromise and understanding for the other side . The decline in political civility has become more prominent in recent years with a large array of symptoms ranging from cancel culture to attacks on the government. The phenomenon of decline in civility can be traced to several aspects, including the shift in behavior of political figureheads and increased use of social media.
Polarized discourse between leaders has arguably become more divisive with a significant decline in respectful dialogue between members of opposing parties . Within the past few decades, leaders within the right and the left have widened the gap over policy issues, moving considerably to ideological extremes on both sides. Both parties harbor prominent factions of leaders and by extension supporters, who now populate the endpoints of both sides of the political spectrum. The polarization of both sides through a widening gap on ideological values has led to harsh negative feelings for the other side , even over issues in an earlier generation that were not hotly contended. The use of personal attacks among the political elite has created a new norm of ad hominem rhetoric that creates a strong reaction from specific voters. For example, the use of negative campaigning and aggressive dialogue attracts voters who have traits such as low agreeability and demobilizes partisan voters that may be more willing to compromise . It is entirely possible that the high reward that politicians have while using negative campaigning extends to their time in office, allowing them to silence constituents who disagree with their platforms and opposing politicians. The benefits of a shift in negative behavior allow the politician to “win” against other politicians who are less willing to combat aggressive or critical expressions while gaining exposure through media sources for their uncivil behavior.
The former status quo of polite discourse allowed politicians the ability to determine when they would face criticisms and consequences of their profession. In an age of social media and cable news network settling into political camps, the boundaries of proper “time and “place” for political discourse are blurred . It has enabled constituents from all social backgrounds to speak with leaders in a way that has never been possible. The consequence of accessibility to leaders is that it creates an open playing field for anyone to engage in any kind of discourse whether positive or negative, creating a dialogue open to criticism from the constituent to the leader. It creates a difficult situation for the politician, where an equally negative response garners criticism from the other side, and a silent or limited response perpetuates a leader’s lack of ferocity. What was once viewed as an equalizer, social media has changed into platforms with a wide array of new sources and voices. Although social media allows for a greater discussion on politics, it has also enabled fake news, propaganda and disruptive voices to flourish . These online disruptors, and those unknowingly influenced by them, have lowered the standard of discussion through the ability to make demeaning and ineffective commentary at little expense to themselves. Many of them operate with the benefit of being totally anonymous and perform roles such as producers of content broadcasters and by extension, political actors with little knowledge of how significant their roles have become .
Although one could argue that these trends are predominantly tied to the actions of politicians, the public is still heavily influenced by political leaders’ rhetoric and media consumption. The decline of civility among elites trickles down to how we treat each other and emboldens political groups through a tribalistic lens. Over the past few years, the lack of respect and cooperation among citizens in daily life is palpable. You do not have to scroll far through your favorite social media app to find two people arguing in the comment section over a political or social issue. Two strangers arguing their own agendas on the internet seems like a harmless trope, and for many an entertaining source of content. Nevertheless, time has shown that heightened tribalism can morph into unruly protests and in its most brazen form, attacks on political leaders and government institutions.
The underlying consequence of diminishing political civility lies with the public and the pursuit of truth. In the muck of boisterous sentiments and media campaigns coming from both parties, logic and reason is ultimately what suffers . The lack of truth in political discussion leaves a population that is weary of government and concerned about the future of our institutions. In anticipation of this year’s Law Day, the American Bar Association (ABA) released its yearly survey on Civil Literacy , gauging the public’s knowledge and, by extension, understanding of American politics. This survey is another concerning confirmation of the decline of civility within our political system. 85% of respondents said civility today is worse than 10 years ago, with only a small group saying it was the same or better than before . Most respondents claimed that those closest to them, their friends and family, hold the primary responsibility for improving civility. The next highest response was politicians. In the minds of Americans, the family unit is responsible for teaching important values and manners that extend into adulthood. This mindset, although well placed and likely true, doesn’t tell the full story especially when it comes to influential media and personas that are now readily available on everybody’s cellphone. It appears that more responsibility should be placed on how adults are influenced beyond their friends and family, in addition to the content consumed and who is saying it specifically.
But where can we go from here? Is the decline and presumed eventual death of political collaboration from both sides inevitable? The ABA’s survey demonstrated that even now, Americans hope for compromise among elected officials. Although seemingly more divided than ever and with pressurized debates in all levels of government, more than three out of four respondents (79%) widely supported compromise among issues such as infrastructure and immigration reform . This compromise does not extend to matters rooted in other social factions, such as reproductive rights and gun reform. Although only in set issues, this signals that Americans are willing to come together to solve some problems, and perhaps more in the future. For now, let’s reflect on what civility means and when it’s appropriate to bend politeness to extend justice for all, not to intimidate others . So next time, rather than writing a harsh comment on a daily news post or griping over your least favorite politician, take a moment to reflect on the part you personally play in political civility. When implemented correctly, it can make a difference! After all, incivility through protest and dialogue has been effective when channeled toward noble causes such as uplifting people of color, extending rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community, or calling for intervention on international issues. When incivility is used to intimidate or bully, it diminishes trust from the American people and spurs a counterresponse that is unbefitting of American politics and stymies our growth as a nation.
Written by: Emily Lazcano, Library Assistant