The American president is elected of the people, by the people, for the people. Last night, thousands of Iowans began the lengthy democratic process of choosing the next president. Just what does it take to be elected president in of the United States in 2016? Looking at the current race, you would think that incivility wins support. In fact, most Americans see this year’s presidential primary race as more uncivil than civil (61% to 32%).
Despite widespread political banter, insulting comments directed toward certain groups, and personal attacks, the sixth installment of the Civility in America poll by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research finds Americans still say they value and reward civility, even in politics.
Most of the 1,005 U.S. adults age 18 and over surveyed, Republicans and Democrats alike, say a political candidate’s tone or level of civility will be at least somewhat important in the 2016 presidential election (84% of adults, 93% of likely voters). Likely voters (74%) also say they do not want their preferred presidential candidate to say whatever it takes, even if that means being uncivil, to win the election. Most (87%) recognize that a president’s tone and level of civility impacts the reputation of the U.S. around the world, and incivility in our government prevents action on important issues here at home (77%).
However, there is a wide gap between what people say they want and what they’re seeing on the political playing field. This raises the question of whether or not incivility in U.S. politics is par for the course. On this matter, Americans are more divided, with the majority of the mind that politics isn’t inherently uncivil: 54% disagree that “incivility is just part of the political process.” However, nearly 4 in 10 think otherwise (37% agree).
The majority (58%) expect incivility to get worse and they believe politicians (64%) and the internet and social media (63%) are the ones to blame. In fact, some research suggests that angry messages spread faster on social media than other ones. The news media (54%) also rises to the top of the blame list. Today’s instantaneous, nonstop media coverage may exacerbate the problem–and most think it makes incivility appear worse than it is (64%). On the one hand, most (70%) feel the media has a responsibility to help decrease incivility. On the other, most also think that responsibility shouldn’t come at the cost of censoring free speech: 69% say they media should report news about political candidates, even if they are uncivil.
What drives presidential candidates toward incivility in the race to the White House? Many believe that people are more uncivil today because there is less tolerance (62%). This may encourage some politicians to only say what their supporters want to hear, even if it is uncivil. Most also think politicians (72%), and people in general (73%), are more uncivil today in order to get attention.
Our survey also shows that most people consider today’s incivility to be at crisis levels (70%). Many opinion leaders, including Carolyn Lukensmeyer from the National Institute for Civil Discourse, believe incivility “has no place in our politics or our public discourse.” Yet, our country has a long history of incivility in politics, starting with the rise of political parties and the competition between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Furthermore, not everyone is overly concerned about incivility in the political arena. In Three Cheers for Political Incivility, Bruce Thornton, Research Fellow of the Hoover Institution, celebrates James Madison’s words in Federalist 10 stating, “all manner of speech no matter how rude or uncivil” is an expression of democracy and the “interests and passions of the people.”
Americans, on the other hand, feel incivility has consequences and tends to be directed at certain groups. In fact, most see a direct link between incivility in society and violent behavior (93%), online bullying/cyberbullying (90%), discrimination/unfair treatment (88%), humiliation and harassment (92%), and intimidation and threats (93%). Groups thought to experience incivility often: homeless people (55%), Muslims (51%), immigrants (50%), refugees (47%), transgender people (50%), lesbian and gay people (46%), lower income people (46%), African Americans (41%), Hispanics (35%), people living with a mental disability (38%), people living with a physical disability (31%), police officers (35%), and women (28%).
Furthermore, our poll finds that 75% feel incivility constricts debate by making it difficult to discuss issues seen as controversial. Many say they personally stay away from discussing issues featured in the current presidential campaign: racial inequality (39%), abortion rights/right to choose (35%), same sex marriage (34%), gun control (32%), and immigration (31%). Only 34% said they do not avoid discussing any issues for fear the conversation will turn uncivil.
Susan Herbst, President of the University of Connecticut, examined the gap between civility in reality and practice in Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics [Chapter 1]. Although Herbst believes civility is a key concern in democracy, she challenges the notion that incivility is always bad and suggests there are tactical uses for incivility. She argues for creating “a culture of argument,” pointing out that Americans “are not sure how to handle debate,” and that “passion and argument coincide uncomfortably in our culture.” She advocates for the teaching of argument as early as the 6th or 7th grade so “everyone would have at least one powerful tool for engaging in strong public discourse on most subjects.” Our survey finds 73% in support of civility training in schools.
So what does it take to be elected president by American voters? Does it require mudslinging and tactical incivility that generalizes marginalized groups to win the job? Or will the majority of voters ultimately reward civility in practice? Our survey cannot answer those questions. However, it does show that most voters care about civility, are paying attention to how candidates conduct their campaigns, and many (47%) say they have not voted for a political candidate in the past because of a candidate’s lack of civility.