John Eby: Americans ashamed by lack of political civility

Published 2:13 pm Thursday, May 6, 2010

eby“I may be idealistic,” First Ward Councilwoman Lori Hunt said near the end of the April 26 Dowagiac City Council meeting, “but if we could agree to disagree and be nicer, everybody. You have to give respect to get respect. Sometimes we’re not respectful on both sides of the spectrum.
“I can only speak for Lori, but it’s kind of hard sometimes coming in here for me when people aren’t nice. We don’t have to agree with everything our constituents say. And constituents don’t have to agree with everything we say. But we need to learn to be a little more civil. This meeting was a little uncivil today and I was a little disappointed to be a part of it. That’s all I have to say.”
As you can see, she didn’t direct her remarks at anyone in particular, though apparently many in the audience surmised they were meant for Mayor Pro Tem Leon Laylin, who at 7 minutes and 45 seconds gaveled Howard Hall, earning him the sobriquet Bam Bam, like on The Flintstones.
Laylin allowed Hall to speak another 2 1/2 minutes later in the meeting.
So I thought it was a tempest in a teapot, one of those heated moments that would be forgotten when everyone calmed down – not stir recall talk.
One e-mail I received stated, “I was present at the council meeting and you reported on all the ‘good’ things you saw going on at the meeting, but why won’t you print anything about the comments Councilperson Hunt had to say about the behavior of Councilman Laylin?
“I think the people need to know about the disapproval of one councilman’s actions by another council member. Why don’t this paper print all the story instead of just the whole truth? The Informer prints it all.”
This was first reading of a proposal that will be voted on May 10 at 6 p.m.
The point is to get ordinance language before the public, so there is opportunity for comments and feedback before the proposal, which could be modified in the interim or even rejected.
In one of the first comprehensive studies of how Americans view the tone of political discourse, researchers find troubling signs.
Although an overwhelming number of Americans say they believe civility and compromise are essential characteristics of a democracy, they also say that they do not see these values reflected in today’s political environment.
Instead, citizens say they see rancor, anger and hostility – and they’re worried.
The study springs from a comprehensive telephone survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, developed and commissioned by the Center for Political Participation at 2,100-student Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.
The poll was conducted by Zogby International during the last week of March, immediately following the historic and rancorous health care debate, when I was dismissed as “liberal trash” spouting Nancy Pelosi talking points for quoting the House speaker.
That amuses me because I am not a Pelosi fan, just as it’s ironic to be tagged a coward by a brave pot stirrer cloaked in anonymity called Dogpatch Resident.
Some 95 percent of Americans believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy, and 87 percent suggest it is possible for people to disagree about politics respectfully.
Some 70 percent support compromise solutions on a range of contentious issues.
Asked if Americans should be proud or ashamed of the way elected officials handled the health care reform initiative, 69 percent said “ashamed”and only 21 percent said “proud.”
The survey found that citizens who pay close attention to politics are four times as likely to say that the tone of political discourse has gotten worse than those who pay only modest attention to the news.
But perceptions vary according to a respondent’s primary media source.
Radio listeners, for example, are much more likely to perceive a decline in civility than are newspaper readers.
“While politicians and pundits will debate the causes and impacts of the deterioration in political civility, it’s heartening to see that Americans – adults with widely differing demographic profiles – overwhelmingly agree that coarseness and lack of respect are unacceptable,” said Daniel M. Shea, Allegheny College political science professor and the study’s lead author.
“Many have assumed that our heightened interest in politics is fueling the rudeness. It’s not true. People are attentive, ready to speak their mind, but they also know that politics doesn’t have to be vicious and mean-spirited.”
The study also asked respondents to help create a rule book for political discourse.
Ten items were assessed.
Among the findings:
• 89 percent thought belittling or insulting someone should be against the rules.
• 89 percent said comments about someone’s race or ethnicity should be considered unacceptable.
• 87 percent said personal attacks should be out.
• 85 percent thought shouting over someone during an argument should be against the rules.
Seventy-three percent said elected officials should do what is “good for the nation” instead of what is “popular with voters.”
And 85 percent said elected officials should pursue friendships with members of the other party.
A broad willingness to compromise was another key finding of the study.
“Contrary to what some have suggested, a vast majority of Americans want middle-ground solutions on a range of issues,” Shea said.
For example, 85 percent of respondents suggested politicians should find a compromise on health ccare, 78 percent on taxes, 66 percent on immigration and 63 percent on climate change.
As for assessing blame for the coarseness of political discourse, respondents identified political parties, elected officials and the media as the prime culprits.
Women define civility differently than men and are more likely to label recent public political behaviors as uncivil. Women are also more likely to be turned off to politics because of the negativity than are men.