Americans alarmed and disheartened by a coarsened culture and incivility in politics — especially following a brutal presidential campaign season that bared new lows in both — are fighting back with a range of initiatives around the U.S. to restore some semblance of decorum.
“It’s incumbent on us to be the adults who push back against what we’re getting in the popular culture and the political rhetoric,” said Mary Evins, who directs the American Democracy Project for Civil Learning at Middle Tennessee State University. That’s where students have staged classroom role-plays of compromises from the 1787 Constitutional Convention, assuming the parts of the Founding Fathers to act out the give-and-take required to reach agreement on crucial but difficult decisions, such as how large and small states would share power.
“There’s so many people with a difference of opinion,” said Brendon Holloway, who participated in various Democracy Project initiatives at Middle Tennessee State, including voter registration drives. “It’s really important to bridge the gap.”
The school is training faculty to incorporate civic learning across disciplines, holding a lecture series on rhetoric, and hosting former members of Congress to talk about respectful dialogue. Evins says it’s all part of addressing not just college and career, but citizenship.
“If we do not address that third C, then we have shamed ourselves,” she said, “we have walked away.”
Even as polls find Americans say a civil tone in candidates is an important factor in how they vote, surveys have also shown people more accepting of personal attacks in politics. A poll by Zogby commissioned by Allegheny College in October found in the six years since its previous survey, significantly more people viewed it as acceptable to interrupt, shout over, belittle, insult, personally attack, or question the patriotism of those with differing opinions. Respondents also have grown more accepting of commenting on another’s sexual orientation, race or ethnicity.
Fewer people even believe elected officials should pursue friendships with members of other parties: 56 percent in the more recent survey compared with 85 percent in 2010.
“If this incivility continues, we’re going to lose a generation to politics,” said Jim Mullen, president of Allegheny, in Meadville, Pennsylvania. “And that’s a very dangerous thing for our democracy.”
Allegheny created the Prize for Civility in Public Life in 2011 to highlight public figures who demonstrate respectful behavior and inspire students to consider elected service. Last year, it went to Sen. John McCain and Vice President Joe Biden, who hugged onstage as they received the honor.
Organized attempts to stir civil discourse have sprouted for at least a decade in response to the continuing degeneration of public debate and increased animosity between Democrats and Republicans. But they’ve gained new steam following the 2016 campaign and the ascension to the presidency of Donald Trump, with his unrestrained, often caustic commentary.
Interest has surged in programs offered by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which was founded at the University of Arizona after the 2011 shooting that left six dead and then-Rep. Gabby Giffords and others badly injured. Its civility-boosting efforts around the country include sessions in state legislatures that bring lawmakers from opposing parties together in hopes they see one another as people and try to understand what has shaped their opinions.
“I don’t think there’s any question that this is a national crisis at this point,” said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the institute’s executive director. “This is kind of a dangerous moment.”
At Unity College in Maine, one of several civility initiatives aims to improve discourse at the person-to-person level. President Melik Khoury, who established a campus commission to ensure inclusivity and free expression, also made students a special offer: He’d pay for them to dine with someone they don’t know in an effort to foster dialogue between people of different points of view, such as avid hunters and devoted environmentalists. A handful of students so far have taken up the offer.
“We cannot stop talking,” Khoury said. “We cannot be disunited.”
Civility efforts have even stretched outside of academia and government into less likely arenas. In Greencastle, Indiana, organizers are preparing for a new summer camp where children will be exposed to elementary philosophy, taught to talk about their values and to listen to competing outlooks.
Andrew Cullison, who is leading camp planning as director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, said the goal is to get the first- to fifth-grade participants talking respectfully about their opinions on a range of issues. If they can learn to be composed in, say, a discussion over whether vanilla or chocolate is better, they may be able to translate that skill when they later face disagreement on a weightier topic, like politics.
“They sort of realize, the way I was talking about ice cream is the way I can talk about Trump,” Cullison said.
As these efforts spread, Evins at Middle Tennessee State acknowledges some frustration that despite so many attempts to improve discourse over the past decade, it has only worsened.
“We’ve been working at this for a long time. Are we making no progress whatsoever? Are we beating our heads against the wall?” she asked. “There is a sense that there must be renewed dedication to this.”
Sedensky can be reached at msedensky//twitter.com/sedensky