Political Incivility: Fleeting Trend or Enduring American Tradition?

by Christina Coloroso

Observers of the current debates surrounding health care reform and economic stabilization have noted seemingly unprecedented levels of uncivil behavior on behalf of politicians and the public at large. Mounting discontent, which seemed to aggregate over the course of the summer town hall meetings, culminated with the outburst of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) during a presidential address. Wilson was subsequently punished by his legislative colleagues, according to institutional norms which prohibit unbecoming conduct by elected officials. These events have prompted renewed attention on the issue of political incivility, its place in American society, and the consequence of incivility on policy outcomes.

The term civility is derived from the Latin civilitas, connoting politeness in social interactions as well as the “science of politics” in which one must compromise ideological convictions with pragmatic constraints (American Enterprise Institute, 2009). Incivility, the antithesis of such righteous manners and practice, is manifest in a variety of modern forms including personal attacks, name calling, seditious accusations, harassment, and even physical violence. More subtly, incivility may also motivate hyper-partisanship, aversion to cooperation or the search for common ground, and the prioritizing of personal ambitions above the interests of one’s constituents or nation. Closely related, the concept of political negativity refers to any criticism leveled by one party against another, whether substantive or personal, evidenced or otherwise (Greer, 2006).

Political scientist Kathleen Hall Jamieson suggests that acts of incivility are most likely to arise under three conditions: when parties undergo transitions or takeovers in power, in response to highly controversial issues or events, or when a minority group feels abused or a majority senses threat (American Enterprise Institute, 2009). Other speculations as to the causes of incivility include heightened partisan polarization, the professionalization of politics at all levels of government, term limits (which hinder the capacity for lawmakers to build personal relationships and a sense of camaraderie), a climate of general distrust, and increasing diversity in the range of issues presented to governing bodies for deliberation (American Enterprise Institute, 2009). The incidence of incivility appears to have fluctuated over time in concordance with varying political contexts. From this perspective, recent acts of incivility may symptomize broader characteristics of the current political environment.

Yet condemnations of the raucous summer atmosphere often overlook past instances of political incivility in American history; indeed, incivility is not a new phenomenon. In the presidential election of 1800, Alexander Hamilton penned and circulated a letter concerning the “public conduct and character” of John Adams, which among many unflattering characterizations, charged that Adams’ “ungovernable temper” rendered him unfit for executive office. In 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams described Andrew Jackson as a “murderer” and “cannibal,” and further impugned the virtue of Jackson’s wife. Political campaigns had grown so riotous and debauched in the 19th century that an act of Congress was required in 1838 to prohibit the common campaign practice of dueling.

As for contemporary examples of incivility, search no further than televised political attack ads. In 1964, the infamous “Daisy Ad” aired by President Johnson’s campaign portrayed Barry Goldwater as a warmonger eager to deploy nuclear weapons in Vietnam. In 1988, a political action committee in support of George H. W. Bush produced a similarly inflammatory piece about opponent Michael Dukakis, accusing the Democratic candidate of supporting a weekend pass program which allowed convicted murderer Willie Horton to leave the confines of prison and perpetrate armed robbery, assault, and rape. Most recently, in the 2008 senatorial campaign, incumbent Elizabeth Dole attacked challenger Kay Hagan with a 30 second spot describing Hagan as “godless” and in cahoots with anti-religion activists.

Incivility is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In the British parliamentary tradition, members of the upper and lower houses rancorously weigh policy proposals, and without hesitation, supplement their arguments with assaults on the intelligence and character of those whom they oppose. Beyond the Western world, the National Diet of Japan is known for frequent outbursts of violence so severe they often carry over into the surrounding city streets.

Despite a history of domestic incivility and the prevalence of similar behavior around the world, Americans continue to yearn nostalgically for the days of a gentler politic, and fear escalating incivility in successive decades (Parker, 2009). The consequences of such public disparagement are numerous. American political participation has declined in recent years, as eligible voters express waning rates of political efficacy and trust in the electoral system. The public has become increasingly critical of elected officials, describing the American government as overly partisan, extremist, and inept at producing optimal policy solutions. In addition, stable long term policy may depend upon the type of bipartisan consensus building which incivility often precludes, and hyper-partisanship may advance individual personalities at the expense of the health of government institutions as a whole (American Enterprise Institute, 2009). Further, extremist rhetoric often derails policy deliberation, as evidenced in the debate over “death panels” in the context of the current health care reform effort.

The consequences of incivility are further magnified by advancements in technology which afford anonymity to those who criticize others, and distribute such expressions of disrespect to a broader audience. Informal modes of communication like social networking may embolden some to speak more harshly compared to traditional venues of political exchange which temper speech through accountability and transparency (Parker, 2009). The constant nature of modern communication ensures that acts of incivility are “captured, amplified, replayed and distributed- perpetually” (Parker, 2009). The mass media may further encourage incivility by legitimizing a combative atmosphere (generally a ratings booster) while simultaneously snubbing those who may wish to engage in a more substantive, yet “boring,” debate style (American Enterprise Institute, 2009). Finally, the combination of spoken or written assaults with visual and auditory imagery may promote a type of incivility that is more nuanced, lasting, and difficult to uproot.

In the face of these concerns, incivility and negativity are not without advocates, many of whom assert that contentious political exchanges serve a vital role in American society. Note that the First Amendment’s guarantee to the right of expression is not predicated by an assessment of one’s eloquence, credibility, or graciousness. It naturally follows that for some, uncivil communication may be the most effective or desired means of conveying an idea. Incivility also heightens public engagement in a given debate, thereby serving the democratic system. In addition, research suggests that political attacks are more often grounded in evidence, more issue oriented, and more responsive to the public than positive political communications (Greer, 2006). Finally, as Howard Fineman argues, debate is fundamental to the American character (2009). The brutal competition of ideals remains at the core of free market philosophy, and rather than fearing passionate disagreement or debate, Americans should vociferously defend the right of all Americans to disagree – even the uncouth ones.


American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. “Civility and American Politics: Conference Summary.” April 30, 2007. http://www.aei.org/EMStaticPage/1510?page=Summary (accessed November 10, 2009).

Fineman, Howard. The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates that Define and Inspire Our Country, Random House Press, 2009.
Geer, John G. In Defense of Negativity. The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Mishler, William and Richard Rose. “Trust, Distrust and Skepticism: Popular Evaluations of Civil and Political Institutions in Post Communist Societies.” The Journal of Politics 59, no.2 (1997): 418-451.

Parker, Kathleen. “Politics with a Little Politesse.” The Washington Post. November 15, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/13/AR2009111303329.html?sid=ST2009111703179 (accessed November 15, 2009).

Wolfe, Eugene L. “Deliberation, Democracy and Dueling: Legislative Violence in the United States.” Presented at the Comparative Politics Workshop at the University of Chicago, May 26, 2004. http://cas.uchicago.edu/workshops/cpolit/papers/wolfe.doc (accessed November 10, 2009).

Email Christina Coloroso at cmc268@georgetown.edu



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