Gwen Davis
Cornell Clayton says that incivility in politics has always been around, it's nothing new.

Worried about the phenomenon of Donald Trump? WSU professor says political incivility has always existed

By Gwen Davis

Think our current presidential political landscape is unprecedented, and worse than it’s ever been?

On Sunday, the Highline Historical Society put on a presentation, "American Rage — Division and Anger in US Politics". Presented by Washington State University professor, Cornell Clayton, the program compared the current period of political incivility with other flashpoints in American history to prove how incivility has served as a catalyst to move the nation forward when other means had failed.

The presentation was held at SeaTac City Hall.

“We have a terrific program for you today,” a Highline Historical Society member began. Before the program began, she gave the approximately 50 attendees an update of the society’s fiscal business.

Clayton, who has a PhD in politics from Oxford University, broke the presentation into three sections.

“I think we can all agree that incivility is around us everywhere in politics,” he began. “You know it’s bad when the people who seem most civil are the comedians, such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.”

President Obama has often talked about the state of our incivility, Clayton said, as well as a majority of Americans.

However, incivility needs to be put into historical context, he said. We are nostalgic for “kinder and gentler” times. But it’s a myth that we’ve been more civil in the past. Incivility has always existed.

“A lot of Americans mythologize the Founding Fathers, as being inspired by God,” he said. However, those times were so mean and ugly, it makes more recent times’ incivility pale in comparison. In the 1800s, Thomas Jefferson was depicted in a cartoon a twin of satin. Newspaper editorials were brutal.

Clayton went through the early presidential elections, showing clips of newspaper editorials and cartoons, and how nasty and disgusting the elections actually were.

“Mr. Lincoln is a fungus… The man who votes for Lincoln he is a traitor and a murderer,” wrote one newspaper editorial. Newspapers editorials were calling on Lincoln's assassination, which did indeed become a reality.

Fast forwarding to the 1960s, and the civil rights movements, students were shot during protests, buses were set on fire, and three of the biggest figures of the time were shot down dead, including Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

Those times were horrendously uncivil.

“But they weren’t ‘normal,’” Clayton also said.

“Incivility is not a cause of devision in politics,” he said. In fact, devision is why people are so uncivil.

Clayton provided an overview of why politics is so uncivil these days.

Compared to the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans are twice as unlikely to vote for the opposing party than they were.

“Both chambers are more polarized today than they have ever been, since we had these two political parties,” he said.

Clayton also noted that prior to the 1960s, parties were not so ideologically homogenous. There were huge wings of both parties that were more liberal or conservative than the counterpart party. In order to get things done in the past, people needed to form broad bipartisan measures.

But gone are the “Dixiecrats” and the “Rockefeller Republicans.”

Now, there is much more devision. Democrats and Republicans now share very little basic ideological ground.

“There is zero ideological overlap,” he said. “If you are a liberal today, you are a Democrat. If you are a conservative today, you are a Republican.”

Today we have “red” and “blue” America. Two different Americas, in many ways, both ideologically and geographically. There are only a handful of battleground states that can go either way.

However, “red” and “blue” America is much to simplistic, he said. Most of America is actually purple, as we see in polls that survey people’s moral values.

But party drives people’s political values.

“If I know what party you belong to, I can accurately predict where you fall all these moral issues.”

“We feel pretty warm and fuzzy about our own party, which is higher than how we feel about our own immediate family,” he said.

But people feel warmer towards cockroaches than they do to the other political party, polls have shown.

"But in previous times, we didn’t used to hate the other party,” he said. “Today we hate the other party.”

According to a recent Pew study, 27 percent of Democrats feel the Republicans pose a threat to the nation’s well-being. Meanwhile, 36 percent of Republicans feel that Democrats are a threat to the nation’s well-being.

“We are more polarized today, than ever,” Clayton said. "When we’re closely divided like this, it leads to institutional instability. We have divided government. We don’t trust each other. And now you put Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in control of the Senate, and you expect us to cooperate. That’s not going to happen.”

We want parties to have a clear vision and identity, but when we ask these highly polarized parities to work together, it won’t work.

In other uncivil times, such as the 1880s-1890s, there was similar institutional instability. It wasn’t from party back then; it was from issues regarding economic transformation, rising economic equality, immigration and demographic changed and changes in campaigns and elections.

When the electorate is polarized, and closely divided, stakes in politics increase.

Because of polarization, George W. Bush was elected and Obamacare was passed. It was just handful of the electorate who decided this.

Another factor in polarization includes demonization. People easily demonize the other party.

But it’s important to note, that incivility does not erode democracy, as some lawmakers have recently suggested.

Incivility is a symptom not a cause; and the relationship between incivility and democracy is complex.

Furthermore, incivilly is not necessarily “bad”. The women’s suffrage movement was considered uncivil, for instance.

“People should be civil to each other, but from a democratic point of view, how do we know when incivility threatens democracy or when it helps us govern when we fundamentally disagree about things?” Clayton asked.

When all you want are the right answers, democracy is not a good thing, he said. However, democracy is self-correcting.

“Democracy is not an commitment to outcomes, it’s a commitment to a process,” he said.

Also, when it comes to people who lack power, the only way for them to challenge the status quo is through incivility.

However, incivility can get in the way of creating an efficient democracy.

“In order for democracy to function, it requires the ‘democratic manner,’” he stated.

People need to respect each others’ views and not demonize one another for short-term gain.

There is also a problem called “tribal thinking”. An example of that is Obamacare. All Republican congresses voted against it continually, however, it was a Republican idea to begin with. It wasn’t about the merits of the plan, it was about the people who proposed it.

The same tribal thinking happened when political leaders proposed the NSA surveillance program. If a Republican was in charge of it, Democrats disliked it and vice versa. People’s views on it didn’t have to do with the actual program.

“Political decisions are highly emotional that are based in our identities,” Clayton said.

Another example is global warming. When it comes to global warming’s authenticity, people decide whether they agree or disagree based on party.

At this time, the US is again politically polarized and closely divided. This has led to greater incivility in public discourse.

Incivility threatens democracy when it undermines the 'democratic manner'.

Clayton was asked when polarization will end. He said that in the past, polarization has ended when one party becomes so extreme that it can’t elect its own members. This is similar to what is happening in the Republican party today.

SeaTac city council members in attendance included: Kathryn Campbell, Pam Fernald and Peter Kwon.

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