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Can We Bring Back Civility by Talking About Politics Less?

80 percent of voters want compromise between Republicans and Democrats. How we get there is another story.

by Katie Moritz
November 12, 2019 | Our Future

If talking about politics across parties felt tricky in 2016, it's only gotten more uncomfortable in the years since.

Feelings of distrust and dislike between Republicans and Democrats have increased since the last presidential election year, according to recent numbers from the Pew Research Center.

Eighty-three percent of Republicans feel "cold" toward Democrats, compared to 69 percent in March 2016. Seventy-nine of Democrats feel "cold" toward Republicans, up from 61 percent. Meanwhile, people in both parties feel warmer toward other members of their own parties.

Most Republicans believe Democrats are closed-minded, and most Democrats believe Republicans are closed-minded, too.

The divide transcends politics. A majority of both parties believes they don't share the same values and goals with members of the other party outside of the political realm.

And 73 percent of people believe that not only do Republicans and Democrats disagree on policy, they also disagree on basic facts.

A way forward?

At the same time Republicans and Democrats are acknowledging that their own parties are becoming more extreme and less willing to compromise, they're othering people who don't agree with them politically. And it starts at the top. Eighty-eight percent of voters "express concern and frustration about the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians," according to the new Civility Poll by the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service.

"More and more political leaders don't feel civility is something to even strive for," said Alexandra Hudson, a research fellow at the American Institute of Economic Research who's working on a book on political civility.

Because the political stakes seem higher than ever, there's a feeling that "we can't afford to be decent to our fellow human beings" if they don't agree with us, she said.

Politicians play into this by giving the behavior of others in their party a pass: "'If you're on my team, then your incivility is for the greater good and justified,'" Hudson said. "It becomes more and more this consequential reasoning."

Sharing ideas with one another is a way to increase understanding — in a perfect world. But in a political environment where new ideas are often dismissed out of hand, or spark a fight, what if we talked about politics less? That's Hudson's argument.

While it might sound like avoiding the problem, that's not what she's implying. Rather, she thinks putting less emphasis on politics, and more emphasis on personal relationships, is the way to move forward with increased understanding and collaboration.

Over the years, politics has become more important to individual identity, and more important to our collective identity. At this point, "I think we give politics way too much importance," Hudson said.

"We're really in the midst of this existential crisis of meaning in our country," she said. "We have displaced our meaning, and many people have placed their meaning in politics."

Making connections

Instead of launching straight into political discussions with strangers, or even with relatives you only see a few times a year, build a relationship, and trust, first.

Identify the things you have in common, even if you know you don't agree politically. Challenge yourself — be intentional about developing connections with people who are different from you.

"That's really what civility in its best form is willing to achieve," said University of Missouri associate professor Lynn Itagaki, who researches civility. "There's a mutual respect, there's a sense of cooperation — we're part of the same community."

With trust across parties so low — and trust in general so low — relationship-building is a must for moving forward.

"It's only when you have that affection and trust that you can have conversation about more sensitive topics," like immigration, or abortion, Hudson said. "Cultivating these relationships is what reminds us of our common humanity."

Over time, this will help "elevate the conversation out of the mire of the daily scandal or tweet," she said.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done in building out the part of our dialogue that's not necessarily apolitical, but supra-political," Hudson said. That means "getting to the questions and the concerns that apply to us on a more human level and not feeding these tribal instincts."

The downside of compromise

A lot of people, both Democrats and Republicans, want compromise. The Civility Poll showed that 80 percent of voters want "compromise and common ground." (The same percentage wants political leaders who "will stand up to the other side." "They want to have their cake and eat it, too," Itagaki said.)

The darker side of civility is that it can be used as a tool to silence less privileged people or groups who are pushing for equality, change or acceptance, Itagaki said.

Finding common ground "might mean that people who are more vulnerable have to be even more giving and understanding and more flexible," she said.

For example, in order to get along with a homophobic uncle, a gay nephew might feel the need to downplay his relationship with his boyfriend, or let his uncle drive the conversation at a family gathering.

That doesn't mean Itagaki thinks the dream of civility is a lost cause. But it does mean it's pretty complicated.

"Oftentimes, calls for civility try to preserve the status quo," she said. "Civility is often a demand of the more powerful onto the less powerful. Mutual respect or cooperation might require more labor on the part of the more vulnerable ... so we have to disambiguate when those calls for civility are about silencing people or demanding that they compromise more."

It also means allies, people who are less vulnerable but advocate for issues impacting more vulnerable populations, can play an important role in pointing out power imbalances during discussions about civility.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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