One task of journalists these days is to count the number of times that presidential candidates interrupt each other during a debate. In the June 27 Democratic debate, for example, the count was 53. Many candidates are even being advised to interrupt. The personal clashes, the shutdown of real debate, and the resulting sound bites can give candidates a bump in the polls. Their incivility may help rally core voters who feel unheard.
This trend in interruptions is one aspect of a slippage in civility and a rise in heckling. Polls show many Americans have stopped talking to someone over political differences (50% for Democrats, 38% for Republicans, and 35% for independents). Cable news shows can experience higher ratings and make money when pundits talk over each other. On college campuses, speakers have been disinvited or attacked because of their views. Some activist groups have planned an approved demonstration in public places and encountered protesters trying to deny them that forum, even by violence.
Is dialogue seen as a dead end? Is respect for an individual’s dignity seen as giving respect for that person’s point of view.
If so, the cost for democracy is the loss of the kind of listening that would normally lead to common ground for shared solutions. In addition, fewer citizens may vote. There is less civic engagement. The losing side of an issue may flee politics or try to destroy the tenets of democracy, such as the potentially divisive but essential right of free speech.
Reversing this can’t be left to politicians. In the machine politics of today’s acute polarization, they have little room to maneuver from tactics of ugly rhetoric. The burden of reform lies with citizens themselves. It begins mainly at the grassroots, often with nonprofit groups whose focus is bridging differences or training citizens in civic behavior.
One leader is Cindy McCain, whose husband, the late Sen. John McCain was a Republican known for working with Democrats and befriending them. For the first anniversary of his passing this Sunday, she is launching a social media campaign urging “acts of civility” by Americans. She believes the pendulum is going to swing back to civility and citizens might as well start it.
Another effort is Better Angels, a nationwide group of volunteers who offer workshops to help liberals and conservatives discuss each side’s criticisms of the other. The First Amendment Center in Washington holds events to help the public and media better understand each other.
The most effective campaign may be that of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, founded in 2011 after then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. The institute has trained thousands, including state legislators, how to hold civil conversations.
These efforts tap into a sentiment that may seem contradictory to the more overt expressions of anger and resentment. In a recent poll of adults by Civility in America, 92% agreed that civility among elected officials is important. In other words, the politics of deliberation, dignity, and honest debate are preferred over disruption and personal attack. These current interruptions in debates could someday go the way of dueling with pistols.