Restoring Civility in Government

civility in government More than politeness, civility in government is the glue that holds our republic together. Discussion about civility tends to focus on good manners, or how people speak and behave. But that’s only part of being civil. That people speak and what is substantively communicated are also key components.

Respectful sharing of differing viewpoints and compromise around policy makes for civility in government. And America is saying we need more of it.

Civility in government = less political polarization

Our system of government is based on the airing of differing opinions and compromise. Unfortunately, when our elected representatives act uncivil, they’re refusing to engage in the respectful dialogue that’s necessary to achieve compromise. No matter how politely communicated, refusing to listen or consider opposing viewpoints is uncivil. It’s antithetical to the foundation of our government.

The ideological gulf between Democrats and Republicans has grown over the last several decades. James Lo, assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern California, and his colleagues analyzed congressional voting patterns to determine the levels of polarization between parties. They found the rift is as wide as it was during the Civil War. In a November 2016 article, Lo notes that a Democrat or Republican affiliation alone accounts for roughly 85 percent of variance in all roll-call voting. This means 85 percent of congressional votes can be differentiated first and foremost by party affiliation.

Further, the measure shows how many Republicans lie to the right of the most right-leaning Democrat and how many Democrats lie to the left of the most left-leaning Republicans. Today, the overlap interval is zero. Lo pointed out that this wasn’t always the case: “In the 1960s, for instance, you had intervals where about 50 percent of the legislators in the two parties overlapped.”

It jumps out that the 1960s was a decade in which many transformational laws were passed (e.g., the Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act). The large overlap interval and smaller ideological gulf between political parties presumably aided in passage. What can we say of our more recent congressional activity?

Civility in government = more compromise

These days, it seems it’s not enough to disagree. Instead, people tend to shun those with opposing viewpoints. Research from the National Academy of Sciences looked at how people assign a motive to another’s actions. People view the motives of the group to which they belong (ingroup) as pure and the motives of another group (outgroup) as bad or even vile.

This cognitive bias, called motive attribution asymmetry, operates to attribute an ingroup’s actions to ingroup love and their outgroup’s actions to outgroup hate. This biased pattern increases beliefs and intentions associated with conflict intractability, including an unwillingness to negotiate and an unwillingness to vote for compromise solutions.

Notably, the researchers found that the average Republican and Democrat suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that’s comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis. Each side believes it’s driven by benevolence and the other is motivated by hatred. The other is evil and an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.

We’ve seen our elected representatives take opposite sides of the proverbial boxing ring and characterize the other party as evil. Is it any wonder there’s little compromise?

Civility in government = increased civic engagement

How do every day Americans view political conflict? Year after year, responses to the annual Civility in America survey demonstrate Americans’ belief that incivility is a problem. In the 2018 report, 93 percent of respondents said incivility was a problem and the majority (69 percent) characterized it as a major problem.

As I’ve written before, acerbic political discourse inhibits civic engagement. A fascinating 2018 study of political attitudes conducted by the nonprofit More in Common looked beyond typical labels based on visible traits or political party affiliation to identify the core beliefs that differentiate Americans.

The seven different tribes, on a spectrum from “progressive activists” to “devoted conservatists,” differ not only in their viewpoints but also in their political involvement.

Importantly, the authors characterize the four middle tribes, which comprise 67 percent of the population, as disengaged. Dubbed “The Exhausted Majority,” this segment of the American population believes politicians don’t care about people like them, and are less likely than the wing tribes to share political content over social media, to attend a political meeting or vote in a local election.

Moreover, this segment tends to say privately that they believe in the importance of compromise. They reject the absolutism of the extreme wings of both parties and aren’t motivated by partisan loyalty. We should all be concerned by the lack of engagement by this majority.

We can all promote civility in government

What can we do about it? First, we should be aware that extremists are dominating news cycles and crippling the effectiveness of our elected officials. Don’t be persuaded by the yelling and labeling. We can (and should) disagree about ideas—that’s the premise of our government. But we need to be respectful of the person who’s sharing the ideas we disagree with. To treat disagreement with contempt is antithetical to our democratic principles.

Second, we must demand better of our elected officials. If you’re an elected official, replace contempt with civility. No one was ever hated into changing their views. We need compromise. Without compromise, we have gridlock.

While it may feel good to be loved by your ingroup and united in contempt for an outgroup, the feeling is fleeting and the ineffectiveness is costly. Our taxes are paying for a government that doesn’t work. And it’s costing us in personal ways too. Incivility can negatively affect the brain’s neural network in both victims and bystanders.

Third, don’t perpetuate or allow incivility in personal interactions. If someone responds to a policy argument by name-calling, call them out. Redirect the discussion with neutral statements. Lawyers are in a unique position both professionally and in your communities to influence and inspire. Attorneys can and should speak up to educate others on the differences between disagreement and incivility.

It’s gratifying to see that so many bipartisan organizations promoting civility have sprung up over the past several years. Check out the resources listed on their websites:

National Institute for Civil Discourse has a Revive Civility project that promotes questioning and disputing in a way that shows respect for the person while critiquing their arguments.

Better Angels is a citizen’s organization seeking to depolarize America and bring conservatives and liberals together.

The Civility Center has a 3.5% Choose Civility initiative premised on the idea that all it takes is 3.5 percent of the population to effect change.

More in Common is an international initiative to combat polarization by focusing on what unites communities and societies.

The Institute for Civility in Government works to reduce polarization in our political and legislative processes by facilitating dialogue, teaching respect and building civility.

Do you have any additional ideas for increasing civility in government?

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

4 thoughts on “Restoring Civility in Government

  1. Dear Ms. Reardon,
    This is an excellent article. Thank you for this contribution toward solving a serious national problem.

    Just a thought. Our lives are stories and all people can relate to stories. Most people respond better to stories than to academic or theoretical/complex arguments. Brief life stories of people from “all seven tribes” (More in Common) that convey a sense of “what they believe” as Americans and “why they believe what they do” based on their life experiences might offer a more humanizing picture of our fellow Americans with whom we hold different political views. More people might well come to the realization that we do indeed have “more in common” than we previously thought.

  2. Dear James, you are so right! Stories are what makes an impact, and I will attempt to gather and share stories to reinforce the commonality of our experiences. Please share with me any you come across as well.

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