Late last month, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) became an inaugural member of the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus. Paulsen joins fellow caucus Reps. David Joyce (R-Ohio), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), Steve Knight (R-Calif.), Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.). According to a press release from Rep. Stivers’ office, the caucus is intended to “encourage all Members of Congress to act with civility and respect in their political discourse in their congressional districts and in Washington.
The bipartisan caucus couldn’t be more necessary or timely. Civility has long been on the decline in political life.
The irony, of course, is that the degradation in civil discourse over the past several years is largely the fault of Paulsen’s own party, especially its titular head, President Donald Trump. According to a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, 70 percent of Americans － regardless of party － think political civility has worsened since Trump was elected. That marks a substantial increase from July 2009, when only one-third of Americans said that civility has gotten worse after Barack Obama took office. Trump regularly attacks his political opponents and the media, slinging insults and tagging them with accusatory nicknames like “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and “Crooked Hillary Clinton.” The New York Times has compiled an exhaustive list of 425 people, places, and things Trump has insulted on Twitter, and he recently called Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations “shithole countries.”
Of course, Trump didn’t begin this trend of incivility in public life. A large portion of the Republican electorate spent the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidency promoting the idea that he was a Muslim, or a Kenyan, or a socialist. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) infamously interrupted Obama as he delivered a 2009 address to Congress, calling him a liar.
Professor Robin Stryker, a sociologist with the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, has linked much of the decline in civil discourse to the tendency in American politics since the late 1960s toward polarization. That is, conservatives have become more conservative, while liberals have become more liberal. In a 2011 article, Stryker was careful to point out that while it was unclear whether polarization produces incivility or whether incivility produces polarization, she concluded that the most likely scenario is that “each exacerbates the other in a dynamic spiral.”
Paulsen, for all his banal rhetoric and posturing as a moderate, is symptomatic of this tendency toward extremism. According to the most recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight, he votes in line with Trump 98.5 percent of the time.
Another important factor for the current lack of civility is the fractured and sensationalized media landscape. In the 1960s, there were only a handful of major news outlets. Today, by contrast, there is a much wider variety of news sources, including hyper-partisan channels like Fox News and websites like Breitbart that are open. These sources also rely on shocking or exaggerated rhetoric in order to agitate viewers or readers. Political scientists Diana Mutz and Byron Reeves of the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, respectively, have found that “For most people, politics on its own merits is not sufficiently exciting to compete with American Idol or E.R. for television audiences, so it requires the drama and tension of uncivil human conflict to make it more interesting to watch.” The desire on the part of media producers, in other words, has also contributed to the current climate of hostility in political speech.
The net result of this polarized America and uncivil political discourse at the elite level (that is, in Congress and the White House) is that the Americans themselves become less civil.
Can Rep. Paulsen and the other members of the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus make civility great again? One hopes the answer is yes, but it’s hard to imagine any significant change in the near term.
Featured image via YouTube.