Civility crisis in American politics likely to get worse, experts say
When the Red Hen opened its doors Thursday, it was greeted by a mix of picketers and prospective customers, the remnants of anger and energy lingering after the rapidly-shifting spotlight of political controversy moved on.
The Lexington, Virginia restaurant had closed for nearly two weeks amid threats, harassment, and protests after its owner interrupted White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’ dinner and asked her to leave on June 22. One protester was arrested last week for allegedly throwing chicken feces at the restaurant.
The owner has defended the decision, saying her staff was uncomfortable serving a representative of the Trump administration. Alongside other cases of Trump officials having meals interrupted by activists, though, it spurred a public debate over the depths of incivility on the left.
Two thousand miles away, President Donald Trump took the stage Thursday at a campaign rally in Great Falls, Montana, regaling the cheering crowd with extemporaneous attacks on his political enemies. At one point, he promised if he ever debates Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., whom he derisively referred to as “Pocahontas,” he will throw a DNA test it at her and demand she prove her contested Native American heritage.
"We will take that little kit and say, but we have to do it gently. Because we're in the '#MeToo' generation so I have to be very gentle. And we will very gently take that kit and we will slowly toss it, hoping it doesn't hit her and injure her arm even though it only weighs probably two ounces,” he said.
Trump also unleashed insults against Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who was recently scolded by her own party leadership for encouraging people to “push back” against administration officials in public. He has repeatedly labeled her crazy and “low IQ” while she has reportedly faced death threats over her comments.
Democrats and feminists were not Trump’s only targets. He mocked former President George H.W. Bush’s use of the phrase “a thousand points of light” to promote volunteerism and complained about cancer-stricken GOP Sen. John McCain’s vote on a 2017 health care reform bill.
Also on Thursday night, police in San Antonio, Texas arrested Kino Jimenez, a 30-year-old man accused of accosting a teen Trump supporter in a Whataburger, throwing a drink in his face, and ripping a “Make America Great Again” hat off his head. Trump and his campaign manager have offered to send the victim a new signed hat.
These incidents represent the latest symptoms of a chronic disease in American political discourse that experts say is growing more severe and more difficult to cure with Donald Trump in the White House.
“The vitriol and the division in our politics has been ongoing,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University and author of “Civility and American Democracy.” “I think Trump has exacerbated it, but he’s not the cause of it… He’s taking advantage of it in a lot of ways.”
Michael Cornfield, an associate professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and director of the Public Echoes of Rhetoric in America Project, sees Trump’s deliberate rudeness as one of two major factors escalating incivility. The other is the spread of smartphones as a means of communication, changing the way people interact.
“Smartphones disorient people, and a lot of what civility is is knowing where you are, who you’re with, and our standards change depending on where you are and who you’re with,” he said.
Cornfield has found Trump’s behavior to be less of a deviation from typical hardball campaigning than others, at least when it comes to attacking other politicians, foreign countries, and the media.
“Take name-calling, for example. A lot of people have gone after Trump and said that’s rude…,” he said. “Name-calling is standard in American politics, particularly when you are campaigning for office.”
Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, pointed to additional causes of division, including partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, and too much money being spent on politics.
“American politics has been broken for some time,” she said. “It did not just happen in the 2016 election.”
This is not to say Trump and the cavalcade of candidates who rolled in the mud with him throughout the campaign helped matters any.
“We saw behavior modeled by people running for president of the United States that we haven’t seen before,” Lukensmeyer said.
Many progressives see calls for civility in the battle against a proudly uncivil president who ran on combating “political correctness” as unilateral disarmament. Liberals harangued Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at a town hall Monday with demands to resist Trump and discard decorum.
“We are in a gunfight and we have a butter knife,” one activist said, according to the Washington Post.
Others warn matching Trump’s egregious behavior with their own further energizes his base and alienates moderate voters.
“Donald Trump’s all-over-the-place, very unpresidential vitriol is contagious and has destroyed the Republican Party’s ability to speak to swing voters,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. “The challenge for Democrats in this toxic environment is to learn from Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, who personally may have experienced outrage but were never publicly outrageous, and always remained strong and reasonable under the most excruciating circumstances, and always kept the moral high ground.”
Politics in America has rarely been a polite enterprise, but Lukensmeyer said the rhetoric is currently the worst it has been since the post-Civil War era. The institute had a graduate student watch every modern presidential debate before the Trump-Clinton debates, and the difference was stark.
“There just was no kind of personal attack like we saw between Clinton and Trump and the kind of stalking behavior we witnessed on the stage…,” she said. “In terms of literally the actual language, sometimes inciting violence, that has not been seen in modern political history period.”
One significant change in the wake of the 2016 election is the continued animosity people feel 18 months later not just toward candidates but toward each other over whom they voted for.
“We still have Americans hating, vilifying, and demonizing people who voted for the other candidate,” Lukensmeyer said.
The National Institute for Civil Discourse has received calls from people unable to interact with relatives at holiday dinners, religious leaders dealing with congregation members not speaking to each other, and corporations whose staffs have not returned to pre-election levels of productivity.
Alan Dershowitz, a prominent attorney and former Hillary Clinton supporter, has witnessed this backlash as he becomes increasingly vocal in defending the legality of President Trump’s actions. He complained in an op-ed for the Hill this week that he has been shunned by liberals in Martha’s Vineyard as a result.
On Fox News Thursday, Dershowitz went further, telling Tucker Carlson, “At a party this week on Martha’s Vineyard, a woman said, ‘If Dershowitz were here tonight, I’d stab him through the heart.’”
Another difference from past periods of political division highlighted by Clayton is the open incivility of the White House itself, which recently used its Twitter account to accuse specific Democrats of supporting MS-13.
“You haven’t seen the sort of explicit baiting of the opposition coming from the White House,” he said.
A new Quinnipiac University poll indicates the public holds President Trump most responsible for the lack of civility in politics, with 47 percent blaming him and 37 percent blaming Democrats. A majority also said Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened racists to express their views publicly.
“We choose to come from our baser instincts or our better angels…,” Lukensmeyer said. “It has been made socially acceptable to use this kind of language, to otherize groups of people, to really be extremely negative about people who are different than you are.”
Another recent poll suggests Americans expect the problem to get worse. A Rasmussen Reports survey found 59 percent of likely voters are concerned those opposed to President Trump’s policies will resort to violence. Nearly the same amount, 53 percent, fear anger at the media over coverage of Trump will lead to violence.
A majority of voters also worried critics of President Barack Obama would resort to violence in 2010, but the concern is higher now and it may rise in the years ahead. Trump’s attack on Sen. Warren Thursday night signals a president eager to launch a brutal, polarized reelection campaign.
According to Clayton, the tone of the 2020 campaign will partly be determined by the outcome of what is shaping up to be a divisive midterm campaign punctuated by frequent MAGA rallies. If Republicans get washed away by a blue wave in November, the president and the party may recalibrate.
“I think the strategy of the White House is to ramp up some of the rhetoric and turn out their base,” he said. “If they get a shellacking, I bet you’ll see a change.”
While she once believed political rhetoric had hit rock bottom, Lukensmeyer said the 2016 campaign taught her otherwise. She now expects 2018 and 2020 to be even worse as candidates and dark money groups try to replicate President Trump’s success.
“It worked, and the game of political consulting always select what worked as the way to go,” she said.
Still, Lukensmeyer stressed not all hope is lost. The National Institute for Civil Discourse has worked closely with dozens of freshman members of Congress who have signed a commitment to civility. There are now two bipartisan civility caucuses in the House.
“What they heard from the people who wanted to vote for them is they were sick and tired of the character assassination, they were sick and tired of nothing getting done,” she said.
According to Arnie Arnesen, a New Hampshire-based progressive radio host, Democrats would be best served by focusing on policy and contrasting positive solutions to the nation’s problems with Trump’s often inconsistent worldview.
“Democrats have to remind the American people what they’re about, and they’re about yes,” she said.
Arnesen also pointed to the “Trump Baby” blimp approved to fly over London during Trump’s visit next week as, if not a higher road, a different and potentially more effective one than outrage.
“You can’t fight Donald Trump with words, you can’t fight Donald Trump with logic… You kind of have to be a little bit funny, and in a way, that’s what he hates the most,” she said.
Varoga, the Democratic strategist, predicted substance will win out over incivility in the end, an optimistic outlook but one not necessarily supported by recent history.
“The Democrats who manage to be strong, no-nonsense and big thinking are going to be the antidote to Trump’s vitriol and are the most likely to win both this November and in 2020,” he said.