Can civility be restored?
When a South Carolina congressman shouted “You lie!” during a speech by President Barack Obama in 2009, House members rebuked him for violating norms of civility. After this year’s presidential campaign, the idea that people were once troubled by the outburst seems almost quaint.
Civility in politics has been declining for years, both a cause and symptom of a changing culture where anonymous verbal assaults are fired freely across the internet, and cable TV routinely broadcasts words once banned from the airwaves. But Donald Trump’s presidential run took name-calling and mockery — things that voters long said they detested in their candidates — and normalized them into a winning political strategy.
Now Trump, the president-elect, is calling for unity in words that draw attention precisely because they sound so unlike Trump, the candidate. But many question whether it is possible to reverse the campaign’s damage to political discourse and its ripples out to the way Americans speak to and about each other.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around on this subject, but I think in this particular election that an embrace of Donald Trump was an embrace of incivility and vulgarity and insults and bullying, and unfortunately we saw very little public repudiation of that from any Trump supporters,” said Mark DeMoss, an Atlanta public relations executive and conservative Republican whose clients are mostly Christian religious organizations.
DeMoss, who abandoned a campaign called the Civility Project in early 2011 after only three members of Congress would sign a pledge to act respectfully, watched the degradation of political speech for years. Then Trump’s campaign, he and other longtime observers say, stomped well past what was thought to be acceptable.
“We can all point to incidents in campaigns across history, but I think this one probably does represent a new place in terms of incivility,” said James Mullen, president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, which awards a prize each year for civility in public life.
“What worries me the most is we’re becoming almost numb,” Mullen said.
When Allegheny — which first polled Americans about political civility in 2010 — did so again in October, researchers noted a “disturbing” decline in those rejecting insults in politics. The number who disapprove of political comments about someone’s race or ethnicity declined from 89 percent to 69 percent. The number who said it was unacceptable to shout over a debate opponent fell from 86 percent to 65 percent.
Many observers blame Trump, who called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” tarred his adversaries as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” and complained that a TV journalist’s dogged questioning was just a sign she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” He said all of those things, not on long-forgotten tapes, but in front of millions of voters.
At Trump’s rallies, supporters followed suit, chanting “Lock Her Up!” about Clinton and wearing T-shirts with the slogan, “Trump That Bitch!”
In some ways, Trump’s rhetoric is an outgrowth of cultural and political shifts.