A Few Introductory Remarks

Daniel M. Shea, Professor of Government and Director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College

flag-1569215_1920Scholars, pundits, public officials, and average Americans seem troubled by the growing ugliness of our politics. The bitter, knock-down, maybe even epic battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is the latest installment. Some mark the early 1990s as the launching pad, while others see the intense battle over health care reform as the turning point. Either way, things seem very different in recent years.

And, if the truth be told, malice has been hurled in both directions. Barack Obama has been lambasted, to be sure, but so too was George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. Here in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage may be the lead player in the ugly show, but there’s plenty of ugly to go around.

Some might ask if it is better to have a disengaged and apathetic public, or an over-charged and energetic one. Not long ago, many bemoaned declining levels of engagement, particularly among young Americans. Any array of recent indicators point to a captivated electorate. The number of Americans saying they are “very much interested in campaigns” doubled from the early 1990s to 2012, for instance. Perhaps nasty politics is the byproduct of a vibrant democracy.

We might also consider how norms of civility and decorum have been used to stifle dissent, particularly from out-of-power groups. The counterculture movement of the 1960s was an assault on the norms of “acceptable” behavior. Indeed, when I reported the results of a survey on civility and compromise in the spring of 2010, I was accused of trying to stifle dissent by a few of my conservative colleagues.

Many would further argue that American electoral politics has always been hard hitting. We know that in 1804 Alexander Hamilton died after being shot by Aaron Burr—a low point for political civility in the early days of our political system. We are reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville’s take on our political culture in the 1830s: “There is still some memory of the strict code of politeness, but no one knows quite what it said or where to find it.”

We hear of the breakdown of our political process prior to the Civil War and of how Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina used his cane to beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into bloody unconsciousness on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856. We also know of the infamous floor brawl in the U.S. House of Representatives two years later. More than 50 congressional members joined the melee.

Most people have heard about the bruising campaign between Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican James Blaine and the contentious period of the 1890s. The McCarthy Era was no picnic, and the Vietnam/civil rights/counterculture period of the 1960s was a tough time, to be sure.

Perhaps, for better or for worse, uncivil politics are a part of our national tradition.

And yet, there is growing data to suggest that unlike previous periods, where there were rapid increase and equally sharp decline, there has been a steady, growing shift toward the negative pole for the last 30 years. One explanation is the ideological purification of the parties. This implies that the root of incivility is a growing ideological gap between the parties. Historically, that distance was greatest during short bursts of intense disputes (i.e., critical elections). Cross-cutting issues were resolved by staking a claim and forcing the electorate to pick a side. In the current climate, however, a host of social, demographic, and political forces have created a prolonged period of partisan polarization—and some rather tough politics.

Financially successful, highly-charged partisan “news” programs, websites, talk-radio programs, and voter mobilization operations will not disappear after the 2016 election. Reality television shows, ripe with vitriol and rude behavior, are here to stay, and Donald Trump’s success may have exposed the electoral benefits of over-the-top attacks for future candidates.

We also wonder if new technologies, such as narrowcasting, micro-targeting, and niche marketing, mobilize individual voters around personal hot-button issues rather than broad themes. If so, what is the incentive for these actors to pull back from using these techniques? The current era of nasty politics may not abate for some time.

So, should we care? For one, our nation is in a period of rapid transformation—from the economic underpinnings that have left so many behind to changing demographics and cultural norms. Quick change spurs anxiety and new challenges. The crew of a ship will be lost if they don’t row together in the storm. If we have little respect, and if we can’t sit across the table from each other to vet plans and options, we are sunk. The irony is the anxiety over change may be the fuel behind the growing incivility.

We may see higher levels of engagement, but many people are left with a bad taste in their mouth and ill feelings about their fellow citizens. As E.J. Dionne noted several years ago, “A nation that hates politics will not long thrive as a democracy.” The losing side must also accept their new status as the minority party, and the system must reestablish civil deliberation to move forward on policy questions. What if they refuse to accept this role, or refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of a majority party or even our governing institutions?

We care deeply about passing to our children the same opportunities we have had. We want our kids to be happy, have good jobs, and safe communities. Why, then, wouldn’t we want to pass down a safe, healthy political system?

Yes, our children are watching. If you haven’t noticed the rising level of nasty, mean-spirited political messages on our kid’s social media, you’ve not been paying attention. Even the thinnest expression of support for a candidate or cause is met with viciousness.

Finally, and perhaps fundamentally, we should fix our gaze on the system’s long-term stability. It was a bold experiment, we all know, to link such a diverse public under one system. Unlike other nations where the glue is geographic, religious, ethnic, or cultural, our bond has been an abiding faith in what the late Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed.

In An American Dilemma, Myrdal found something distinct and rare in our system. We are held together, he argued, by an abiding, almost inexplicable faith in the values of liberty, equality, justice, and the fair treatment of all people. America will endure and prosper because of our commitment to tolerance and respect. That is our glue, our civic religion.

At times, it seems impossible to understand the other side. They seem so wrong and even dangerous. Why shouldn’t we lash out when the stakes seem so high and the opposition so crazy?

Policy questions will come and go, but the very fabric of our system is under assault. Make no mistake, a prolonged period of ugly, nasty, and stubborn politics will do damage to the American Creed.


The Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College, under the auspices of Director and Professor of Government Daniel M. Shea, in partnership with the Boston Globe, commissioned the Colby College/Boston Globe Election Poll.

SurveyUSA interviewed 1,000 adults nationwide Oct. 11-14, 2016. All interviews were conducted after the second Presidential debate Oct. 9, 2016. Of the adults, 878 were registered to vote. Of the registered, 845 were determined by SurveyUSA to be likely to vote before polls close Nov. 8, 2016. This research was conducted 100 percent online.

The margin of error for the full sample of 848 respondents is plus or minus 3.37 percent. All of these figures are based on a 95-percent confidence interval. That is, we can assume that 95 percent of the time a result with the overall sample will be within plus or minus 3.37 percent of the actual figure.

Shea and several students at Colby College designed the instrument.

Shea has written widely on a range of topics in American electoral politics, leading to nearly 20 written or edited volumes and dozens of articles and chapters. He began exploring civility in politics in the spring of 2010 and has conducted several polls on this issue since then. He has penned articles on the history of uncivil political rhetoric, and along with Stanford scholar Morris Fiorina edited Can We Talk? The Rise of Rude, Nasty, Stubborn Politics (Pearson, 2012).


Perceptions of the Current Political Climate

Several questions on the survey were used to gauge respondents’ perceptions of the current political climate. We first ask a generic question regarding their view of the role of civility in our system of government: “For the purpose of this survey, when we refer to civility, or being civil, we are talking about general politeness and respect. First, do you think civility is important for a healthy democracy?”

A full 90 percent noted yes, civility is important. Some commentators have suggested that it might be overrated, or that we should not be too concerned about a decline in civility.  And yet, some nine out of 10 Americans think otherwise; a vast majority of Americans believe a level of civility is important for our democracy.

We then turned to whether or not respondents believe there has been a decline in civility. The question asked, “Which of the following best reflects your view regarding the overall tone and level of civility in American politics during the last decade?” A five-point scale was used for response options to gauge the degree to which civility has changed: “greatly decreased,” “slightly decreased,” “stayed about the same,” “slightly increased” or “greatly increased.” As the following figure notes, some 76 percent noted a decline (either great or slight), 11 percent said it has stayed the same, and just 9 percent note an increase.

For those who suggested there has been a decline, we asked if they believed things had reached a “crisis point.” Some 69 percent suggested that it has. Women seemed even more concerned, with 75 percent noting that it had reached crisis level.

We also asked, “Compared to previous elections for President, how would you describe the current race for the White House? This campaign is much more negative? A bit more negative? About the same? A bit more positive? Or much more positive?” Some 64 percent said it is much more negative and 20 percent noted a bit more negative. Only 16 percent noted it has either stayed the same or gotten more civil.

We queried respondents regarding their perception of the tone of society as well: “Setting aside politics, would you say American society has become more civil, less civil, or stayed about the same during the last decade?” A whopping 83 percent noted things have become less civil; just 6 percent noted more civil.  Once again, women were more likely to suggest things have become less civil than men, but the difference was modest. Some 89 percent of those who regularly attend church noted the same, but overall this summary finding cuts across all demographic groups. Simply stated, a vast majority believe society has become less civil.

Who or What is to Blame?

We addressed the cause of the decline with several questions. We first asked, which political party is to blame? Overall, a plurality (48 percent) noted both are equally to blame. Some 20 percent noted the Democrats and 30 percent suggested Republicans. Perhaps not surprisingly, generally speaking, of those that pointed to one of the parties, it was the “other party” that was to blame. That is, Republicans blamed Democrats and Democrats blamed Republicans.

We then turned to the presidential candidates. Which candidate was to blame for the decline? Overall, some 39 percent pointed their finger at Donald Trump, 16 percent noted Clinton, and 37 percent suggested both.

African-American and Hispanic voters were much more likely to point to Trump (66 percent and 58 percent, respectively) as the root of the incivility, but no other demographic control seemed to greatly modify this finding. Perhaps surprisingly, some 21 percent of self-identified Republicans blamed Trump, but just 11 percent of Democrats blamed Clinton.

We then turned to the news media: “Do you believe the news media has been very responsible, somewhat responsible, or not at all responsible for the decline in civility in American politics?” Here the findings are unambiguous: Some 97 percent suggested the media was at least partly to blame (40 percent very, 47 percent somewhat). Strong Republicans were especially critical of the media (63 percent noted very responsible), while strong Democrats were much more forgiving (21 percent noting very responsible).

The Impact?

If our politics and our society are less civil, and the blame can be spread around, what difference does it make? What’s the big deal?

We first asked respondents what impact the election might have on the willingness of younger Americans to engage in politics. Overall, there seemed to be less worry than one might imagine. Some 38 percent noted it would make them less interested, but 31 percent noted it might make them more interested. Forty-nine percent of young respondents (those under 35) note that it would make them more likely to be engaged, with 33 percent saying it would turn them off. The opposite was true for older Americans: 14 percent said it would make young people more interested, and 46 percent noted it would make them less interested.

Overall, how should Americans feel about the 2016 election? We asked, “Given what has happened so far in the 2016 race for the presidency, should Americans be proud of, or embarrassed by, the election process?” Eight out of 10 respondents (80 percent) said we should feel embarrassed. Only 12 percent noted “proud.”

This figure jumps to 86 percent for women and 89 percent for respondents over 50. There were not significant differences between Democrats and Republicans, but independents were much more critical, as 84 percent noted we should feel embarrassed. Overall, the finding is clear: Americans are not proud of the way the 2016 presidential election is being conducted.

We also asked if the election will lower our standing in the world. Overall, 70 percent said it would. Democrats were more likely to say this than Republicans, but the difference between the parties seemed minimal.

Americans are generally proud of their system of government, often boasting that we are a model for the rest of the world—and certainly for developing democracies. The results of this survey clearly suggest this has changed, or, at the very least, it is on hold this time around.

Coming Together after the Election: Compromise and Respect

At this point in the survey, one could reasonably draw a pessimistic picture. Respondents suggest our politics have gotten ugly and that we should be embarrassed. The esteem for our nation might even suffer as a consequence.

And yet, the survey raised a set of questions that touched on the theme of “coming together” and moving beyond the election. Here a much brighter image appears.

First, can we do politics in a respectful way? We asked, “Many people in the country hold strong views on certain issues. Do you think it is possible for people to disagree respectfully or are nasty exchanges unavoidable?” As noted in the following figure, a full 81 percent thought respectful exchanges are possible. Women were a bit more optimistic, but overall, few demographic or party-related controls seemed to matter. Americans of all stripes believe that we can do politics in respectful ways regardless of the passion we feel for particular issues.

Much related, we asked about the importance of compromise. The question read, “Which is more important in a politician, the ability to compromise to get things done or a determination to stand firm in support of principles?” A full 65 percent of the respondents chose compromise, and 28 percent noted stand firm. Surprisingly, more men (69 percent) chose compromise than women (28 percent). And consistent with previous polls conducted by Shea, Democratic identifiers were more likely to choose compromise (79 percent) than were Republicans (51 percent). The subgroup with the lowest level of support for the compromise option were strong conservatives (40 percent). However, these figures are much higher than what was found in previous polls. Americans seem to ready for middle-ground solutions.

We asked if it would be more likely that Democrats and Republicans could come together to find common ground on important issues if there was more respect for the other side’s point of view. The responses ranged from “help a lot,” “help a little,” or “make no difference.” The results are noted in the following figure. Combined, some 87 percent noted more respect would help.

Along similar lines, a question was asked if elected officials should work to establish friendships with members of the other party. Here again, it seems American are anxious for public officials to work together, as some 82 percent noted they should. This figure jumps to 89 percent for those respondents over 65.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we asked, “When the election is over, how important do you think it will be for both sides to cool tempers, shake hands, and come together to confront difficult issues?” As the following figure notes, there was overwhelming support for cooling tempers. Combined, 93 percent of respondents thought it was very or somewhat important. This nudges up even further for older Americans and for women.

Full results, graphs, and additional cross-tabulations can be found here >>>