The walls of a conference room in former Sen. Richard Lugar’s congressional office are adorned with testaments to a career of diplomacy, bipartisanship and civility. Framed photographs, in color and black and white, show Lugar mixing seriousness and friendliness with a who’s who of late 20th century U.S. politicians: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both Bushes and, of course, former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat.
If you did not know in advance, it would be difficult to tell to which political party Lugar belonged. The moderate Republican senator represented Indiana from 1977 until early this year.
Lugar’s loss in the 2012 primary election serves as a striking example of the diminishing tone of civility in U.S. politics today. The primary, won by Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock, included all the tactics deemed necessary for modern political warfare: negative campaign ads, inaccuracies, half-truths, character defamation and hostility in the media, particularly on the Internet.
In other words, incivility. Lots of incivility.
“One of the major positions taken against me in my re-election campaign was that I have been involved in too much bipartisan legislation,” Lugar recalled as the sun set on his Senate career. “For example, the Nunn-Lugar nuclear reduction program with Sam Nunn. Here, we worked for 20 years together. That legislation could not have happened without strong bipartisan support against very concerted opposition. There were people who said, ‘We don’t want to give the Russians a dime. Why in the world are you still fooling around with the Russians, even after 20 years?’”
Their effort ultimately led to the deactivation or destruction of more than 7,600 Russian warheads and thousands of intercontintenal ballistic and nuclear missiles.
“The fact is that many people in the United States do not realize that for the better part of 40 years there were at least 10,000 to 13,000 nuclear warheads aimed at every city, every military installation in the United States,” Lugar says. “There could have been a slip-up, an accident, a misorder or what have you. Mercifully, none of that happened. But when the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) came up again last year, some Republicans said, ‘There you go again. Talking to Democrats.’”
Lugar, now retired, is not the first victim of incivility between candidates. Nor will he be the last.
No matter the party or the issue, the intensity of today’s multimedia political vitriol has risen to levels deemed unacceptable by the public, political watchdogs and even some politicians.
In the wake of the slaughter of elementary school children and teachers in Sandy Hook, Conn., the nation again turns to the subjects of gun control and mental health.
Historically, gun control is an issue with little room for compromise. Those who passionately support the rights of gun owners point to the Second Amendment. On the other side, those encouraging tighter controls say something must be done to respond to senseless deaths – especially those of innocent children.
As the debate plays out, one thing is clear: Civil or uncivil, the words spoken and actions taken by government officials, their supporters and the media will determine whether the opposing sides can bury the hatchet and achieve a solution that won’t incite further animosity or violence.
Ground Zero in Arizona. Gabrielle Giffords is among many current or former U.S. officials who have witnessed a downward spiral of civil discourse on Capitol Hill and Main Street. The former congresswoman from Arizona is still recovering from a January 2011 assassination attempt. While in office, the Democrat regularly and openly engaged her constituents whether or not she agreed with their opinions.
“Gabby felt the need to have communication with the people she represented,” says her husband, Mark Kelly, a retired Navy captain and former space shuttle commander. “She welcomed people who had different opinions. Usually, they were really respectful, and she would listen to other people’s opinions.”
Such openness was part of growing up for Giffords, who was raised by a Democratic father and a Republican mother. “I learned about bipartisanship at the kitchen table,” she has said.
During the national debate over President Barack Obama’s health-care reform proposal, Giffords and her congressional office were subject to frequent hostility. Protesters gathered outside her Tucson office, jeering loudly and angrily. Some held signs, including ones that depicted Giffords as a scythe-carrying specter of death. After the vote – Giffords voted in favor of the bill – someone shot out the glass door and window of her office.
“We have had hundreds and hundreds of protesters over the course of the last several months,” she told MSNBC at the time. “The rhetoric is incredibly heated – not just the calls, but the emails, the slurs.”
Giffords also called for restraint. “We have to work out our problems by negotiating, working together ... Democrats and Republicans. I understand that this health-care bill is incredibly personal, probably the most significant vote cast here for decades, frankly. But the reality is that we’ve got to focus on the policy, focus on the process. Leaders – community leaders, not just political leaders – need to stand back when things get too fired up and say, ‘Whoa, let’s take a step back here.’”
On Jan. 8, 2011, less than a year after Obama signed the controversial bill into law, Jared Lee Loughner shot and killed six people and wounded 13, including Giffords, during one of her Congress on Your Corner events in Tucson.
It’s impossible to know if Loughner was influenced by political animosity over the health-care issue, which was rampant on the Internet and talk media. It’s certain, however, that the shooting brought to light the condition of civility in the United States today.
During a memorial for victims of the shooting, Obama addressed that condition:
“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better – to be better friends and neighbors and co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.”
Kelly has witnessed, through his wife’s political career, how incivility – broken office windows, cruel phone calls, threatening emails, violence – builds tension in society and ultimately blocks progress.
“If you move the needle on political rhetoric toward the good, it affects everything,” he says. “It’s one of the rare things that you can do that has an impact on every policy … education, health care, military spending. It affects everything. If you could improve everything, why wouldn’t you?”
But even with a renewed focus on incivility, a caustic atmosphere has prevailed.
Many argued that Teamsters President James P. Hoffa crossed the civility line when he introduced Obama on Labor Day 2011 to a crowd, mostly made up of union supporters, by howling: “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Everybody here’s got to vote. Let’s take these sons of bitches out.”
Two years earlier, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., had stunned fellow members of Congress and a nationwide audience by shouting, “You lie!” as Obama outlined his health-care plans.
The Early Days. Incivility is, of course, older than the United States itself.
George Washington was 16 when he addressed the issue by writing a list of more than 100 statements encouraging proper social behavior. Consider this excerpt from “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” by the father of our nation:
“If two contend together take not the part of either unconstrained; and be not obstinate in your own Opinion, in Things indiferent be of the Major Side.”
Differences of opinion defined the Washington administration. The first U.S. president stocked his Cabinet with leaders of the revolution, and the primary task of the infant nation was generating revenue to cover domestic and foreign debt from the war. Two of Washington’s closest advisers – Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson – supported contrasting solutions, and built opposing factions that later evolved into political parties. (Notably, Washington never joined a party.)
The Hamilton-Jefferson squabbles about foreign and domestic issues became so intense that the two eventually refused to cooperate at all, which split the administration. Washington, who often had to resolve their disputes, underscored the need for civility as he left the presidency.
The spirit of partisanship would make “public administration the mirror of the ill-conceived and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by the common counsels and modified by mutual interests,” Washington said.
Incivility had already embedded itself into American culture when John Adams succeeded Washington. “Every aspect of American life – business groups, banks, dance assemblies, even funerals – became politicized,” U.S. historian Bernard Bailyn wrote. “People who had known each other their whole lives now crossed streets to avoid meeting. As personal and social ties fell apart, differences easily spilled into violence, and fighting broke out in the state legislatures and even in Congress.”
After Washington left office, his rules of civility – including “Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile” – continued to be trampled. Jefferson was cast as the antichrist. Andrew Jackson was referred to as the son of a prostitute. Abraham Lincoln was called a “baboon.”
Perhaps the most outlandish example of incivility in Congress followed the 1856 “Bleeding Kansas” speech by Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner. On the floor, Sumner railed against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which called for creating the two territories and would allow them to decide independently whether to allow slavery.
Sumner argued for admitting Kansas as a free state. Days later, a representative from South Carolina physically attacked Sumner at his desk in the Senate chamber. He suffered head damage so severe it would today have been diagnosed as a traumatic brain injury.
Lincoln recognized the nation’s figurative bleeding and understood that the United States’ future was at stake. In 1858, he called for an end to it. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he proclaimed. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”
While the Civil War era has no parallel among historical low points in U.S. public discord, no time period is immune from incivility.
“Animosity in Congress is nothing new,” says Matt Purushotham, vice president of programs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC). “Everyone thinks the current time is the worst time. I think it’s a matter of intellectual dishonesty. My perception is that people are more polite in their speech nowadays, but their willingness to say things with a straight face that are misleading or intellectually dishonest is greater. When people were actually getting into fistfights in Congress, there was actually an authenticity to the positions they were defending.”
Behind Closed Doors. There is often a big difference between heated public debate among politicians and the private negotiations they conduct to achieve results. For example, it was not unusual for 20th century campaigns to be mired in partisan protocol, but once the ballots were counted and the winners sworn into office, the hatchets were usually buried so that the job of running a government could be conducted.
“In every campaign, you see character assassination and politically charged lies,” says Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, executive director of the University of Arizona-based National Institute for Civil Discourse. “People who track these things will tell you that traditionally incivility showed up in the campaign cycle but then faded to the background during governing. Think back to Ronald Reagan. He worked with Tip O’Neill and Bill Bradley to create tax reform.”
It would be challenging to find two politicians whose beliefs were as polar-opposite as the Democratic House speaker and the Republican president. Both chided each other publicly, but behind closed doors, they cooperated.
“The Reagan-O’Neill relationship was really a prime example (of what worked),” says Jonathan Murphy, director of external relations for CSPC. “Reagan did it best. He knew he didn’t have to be on the front lines. He didn’t have to be on the front page of the paper.”
The media landscape is quite different today. Now, tomorrow’s front-page news is analyzed today online and in real time through blogs and social media. Sound bites start flying on Capitol Hill before issues are fully digested.
“A word that has been lost in the language is ‘colloquy,’” Murphy says. “People used to talk about how you’d come down to the floor and speak together about an issue. You’d have time. Now there is such a sense of urgency, such a sense to react. People in the past have been willing to take a step back for a second and see what the big picture is. We just need to learn those lessons from strong leaders like the Tip O’Neills and the Reagans who have been willing to jump over any obstacles that have been in the way.”
What’s at Stake. KRC Research has been measuring civility in the United States with annual surveys since 2010. The most recent, completed in April 2012, queried 1,000 adults. Among the findings:
- 81 percent of respondents say incivility in government is harming the nation’s future.
- 63 percent believe there is a major civility problem in the United States.
- 55 percent expect civility to worsen, while 14 percent said it would improve.
Comparatively, the 2010 survey showed 39 percent expected civility to worsen, while 26 percent believed it would get better.
Incivility also prevents elected leaders from addressing major issues. Take, for example, the brouhaha over the debt ceiling bill in 2011. After months of partisan posturing, a deal was struck to slice the debt and avoid default. While a serious crisis was averted, the aftermath had its victims – including the military, which remains dutifully stoic in most political battles.
“The sequestration and military budget overall is a potential victim and a very conspicuous one,” Lugar said in the months before automatic reductions were set to kick in. “We’re in this situation because sequestration came about due to the inability for people to talk to each other about budgets and taxes at a time when the country reached a debt ceiling.”
But during that tumultuous time, the nastiness momentarily took a back seat as Giffords returned unannounced to vote. When she entered the House chamber, tears, hugs and applause all flowed freely from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Finally, nobility,” remarked The Record, a newspaper in northern New Jersey. “After months of rancor and pettiness, one small woman brought Washington to its feet. Her ‘yes’ vote did not affect the outcome; the bill passed by a wide margin. But for a few minutes, it changed the tenor of the debate. For that, America should be grateful.”
The editorial continued: “Without speaking and without fiery rhetoric, she brought all of us to the same conclusion: This nation is worthy of personal sacrifice. We can compromise on how we fund America; we cannot compromise on how we define America. That definition does not require words. Just look at Gabrielle Giffords.”
The Power of Negative
Advertising. Candidates place negative ads because they work, says Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science at Stanford University. “The data show that the whole reason for the negative ads is that the news media are much more likely to cover bad news than good news. Planes that land safely don’t ordinarily make the news.”
Furthermore, negative ads stick in the minds of voters. “Negative ads are more effective than positive ads,” Iyengar says. “They are more likely to be remembered by viewers.” He cites two ads that impacted presidential elections:
- In the 2004 presidential race, ads disputing the Vietnam War record of Democratic challenger John Kerry gave birth to the term “swiftboating” in a political, rather than military, context. “It was inaccurate, only based on recollections,” Iyengar says. “The next day ... there were more than 500 news reports about the Swift Boat ad.” Navy records and personnel who served with Kerry later contradicted allegations that he had overinflated his record, but the damage to his campaign had already been done.
- In 1964, an ad titled “Daisy” aired just once, but that was enough to carry the message across to voters that Republican challenger Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war. The ad began with a 2-year-old girl counting as she pulled petals off a daisy, then transitioned to an ominous voice counting down from 10, and ended with an atomic explosion. A voice-over ended the ad with “Vote for President (Lyndon) Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
The Moment of Truth.
Politicians or politically charged groups dish out incivility. The media respond by delivering that incivility to the masses. The masses consume it, and bitter debate follows.
That pattern played out in Indiana last year. Mourdock’s bid for the Senate seat was swept away after he seemed to suggest that pregnancies from rape are ordained by God. Mourdock’s comment, made during a late October debate, quickly spread via the Internet and talk radio. The debate turned a “too-close-to-call” race into a comfortable win for Democratic candidate Joe Donnelly.
There’s nothing to indicate this pattern is likely to change soon. Occasional calls for bipartisanship are trumped by today’s outside influences.
“(Today’s) politicians need to remember, ‘What is my role once I’ve been elected?’” Lukensmeyer says. “We have never before seen such a sustained period when there is no movement on the big issues of today.”
Lugar believes that if lawmakers continue to squabble in the mud and leave major issues of the day to languish, public opinion of congressional leaders will continue to decline until an economic or national security crisis occurs, such as massive tax increases, unemployment and military vulnerability resulting from the impasse over deficit reduction.
It’s all coming to a head, Lugar says. “My guess is that there will be a public revolt that will be very substantial. I’m not certain which party will benefit. But I would not be at all surprised if the congressional elections in 2014 went very sharply one way or the other. I’m confident that one party or another will suffer in this process. A lot of incumbents will be voted out as the public has an opportunity. That’s a tough price to pay.”
Henry Howard is deputy director of magazine operations for The American Legion Magazine.