How to bring civility back to our politics
Civility, once considered the hallmark of democratic society, is on the decline. Partisans on either side say that the time for civility has passed, that their opponents are too dangerous to be let near power. They claim that the present moment requires a scorched-earth approach to politics, in which any rhetorical tool is justified as a means to winning the next election. This, we’re told, is the only way for civilization to keep functioning.
In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick declares that "civility is no longer something that is achievable, or even useful." Across the aisle, First Things columnist Sohrab Ahmari calls his fellow conservatives to a bare-knuckle brawl for all-out power: "Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values."
The idea that our Republic is in unprecedented danger if we let our political foes take power is historically naive. Are matters of policy really more urgent now than they were in 1964, when Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act; or 1864, when the nation was at war with itself? The United States isn't embroiled in a world war, and we don't face the threat of annihilation if we elect the wrong leader. Our legislative battles are important, but less important than similar battles in 1865 (when the 13th Amendment was ratified) or 1919 (when the 19th Amendment was ratified). When we take a longer view, it’s hard to justify the idea that political wins are more crucial now than at any other point in history.
So why do many people today seem so terrified of their side losing the next election? There are surely many factors at play, but two of them stand out as being particularly culpable: media and identity politics.
Since the rise of 24/7 cable news, in which television stations for the first time had to fill 1,440 minutes of air time every day, our news ecosystem has become reliant on stoking fear and outrage. This phenomenon has reached a fever pitch today, as news content designed to stoke our darker emotions is within arms reach at all times. We are constantly bombarded with every single thing that's going wrong moment-to-moment—from shootings in California and drug addiction rising in Ohio—not because it is an accurate picture of what is going on in the world, but because it is what most reliably captures our attention. Thus, many people are convinced that the world is worse-off than it has ever been before, and that if the right people aren’t given the power to fix it—or worse, if they are given the power to make things worse—societal collapse is inevitable.
Relatedly, news outlets often portray negative stories in a way that leads people to blame one or the other political party. If a politician makes an inflammatory or divisive comment—like Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” line, or President Trump with “good people on both sides”—news outlets are keen to dedicate coverage to it. News outlets, political parties, and interest groups have all discovered that fear and partisan outrage are more lucrative than constructive, truthful messaging of the facts.
The other primary explanation for our abandonment of civility as a first-principle is that we've turned our political views into our identity. We're more likely to intentionally surround ourselves only with those we find ideologically and politically aligned with our tribe. We're less likely to break ranks and be seen talking to the other side, let alone give any consideration to their point of view. When we turn our politics into an integral facet of our identity, every disagreement or criticism of our party feels like a personal attack.
This is a potent recipe for fear and hatred of the other side, because we hold our ideas in a white-knuckled grip. When the other side criticizes our team, we feel as though they are taking aim at our very essence. We stop seeing their criticism as merely academic; instead, we see it as an active threat to which we have to react. In extreme cases, our fight or flight mechanism can kick in just like it would if someone threw a punch at us.
So how do we break out of our escalating spiral of fear and hatred and return to civil discourse? Like most problems, this one can only be solved at the level of the individual.
First, take responsibility for what you let into your psyche. This doesn't mean you shouldn't stay informed about politics. But once you recognize that 90 percent of the news media–including the outlets who support your team–is designed to keep you scared and angry, you can choose to opt out. You can stay abreast of important current events without internalizing the dire messages that political candidates, cable news, and many pundits are selling.
Second, go out and talk to people across the aisle. Contrary to what demagogues on both sides would have you believe, you won't find demons. Instead you'll generally find decent, hard-working folks who love their kids and who happen to see the world differently than you. Contrary to the myth that Republicans are racist, a recent report found that 77 percent of Republicans say, "America is better today because women, immigrants, and Black Americans have made progress towards equality." Contrary to the myth that Democrats hate the Founding Fathers, 87 percent of Democrats say that, "George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should be admired for their roles in American history."
Third, we need to tap into a deeper sense of identity than partisanship to emphasize the fact that every human being is incommensurably complex, each with our own rich array of experiences, beliefs, and affinities. When we recognize that we are much more than a series of egoic labels, these labels begin to lose their significance, and we begin to see through the illusions of fear and hate.
Hate and fear are being sold to us, but ultimately we're the ones who decide whether to buy them. By consciously choosing the path of understanding and empathy, we can rebuild the culture of civility that is essential for a functioning democratic society.
We haven’t watched network news on any kind of regular basis for decades. So when we are with family where they watch the evening news I am struck by the urgent tone of the “breaking news” stories -- one after the other -- along with the jarring music underlying it. If I were to check, I would bet my heart rate would be elevated just from the tones -- without even hearing the words. Same technique whether the program is “conservative” or “liberal”. I prefer to get my current news in written form or podcasts. And to delve deeper into topics with full books. Knowing that you are being manipulated is the first step.
This is a great article, but it leaves the most important question unanswered: Why is "taking responsibility for what you let into your psyche" such a hard thing to do? 87% of Americans think polarization is a major threat to the American way of life, and it's obvious to many that the media is a major driver of that polarization, so why are Americans still unwilling to walk back from our addiction to negative media coverage?
Telling people to "take responsibility" for their media consumption is unfortunately like telling an alcoholic to "take responsibility" for their alcohol consumption. The problem can't be solved by simply "choosing" the correct option. Instead, we need to treat the public's demand for negative news for what it is - a deeply rooted subconscious psychological addiction to negativity. Until we more fully understand and explicitly name negativity bias as the root cause of these issues, we'll continue to effectively tell alcoholics to "just quit drinking", and polarization will continue to get worse.