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Excerpt – Outside Looking In



There is a widespread belief among Americans of all political persuasions that a serious “crisis of civility” has infected the body politic. As students of American history understand, however, this concern is nothing new. As political scientist Cornell Clayton has noted, “There never was a golden age of American political civility, and history is replete with periods that rival or surpass the bitterness and incivility of today’s debates (Clayton, 2012, p. 1). To some observers it appears that the period of general consensus (or at least the illusion of consensus) and bipartisanship that followed the end of World War II and lasted until the early 1960s was, in retrospect, an exception. Rather, it should be seen that the current state of “nasty politics” more closely adheres to a normal state of affairs (Shea and Sproveri, 2012). While many people wring their hands and decry negative political discourse, no one seems to do anything about it. This book offers some important lessons learned from the experiences gleaned from an impressive study that encompasses all 50 state legislatures. These lessons include some admirable stories, successful efforts to promote bipartisanship and productive dialogue from which political leaders at the national level might learn. It is important to remember that civil discourse is important in a democracy. The lobbyists participating in the survey conducted for this book are in strong agreement with this belief. Civil discourse can lead to increased trust in valued political institutions and to more effective problem solving through public policies that have been leavened by several competing points of view.

As we write this in late Summer 2020, the United States faces a wideranging set of problems. The immediate challenges are mitigating the impacts of the worst public health crisis in a century, a renewed debate regarding racial and social justice in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, and fears that the near-term health of the national economy is in grave danger. These challenges join a number of other long-term issues that have been emerging since at least the early 1980s, such as a propitious decline in trust in American political and social institutions, persistent levels of deficits and debt in the public finances of the national government, extreme levels of income inequality and persistent income stagnation among the bottom 80% of the work force, and a level of partisan political polarization not observed since the Civil War. Scientist Peter Turchin has documented the levels of political stress in the U.S and has concluded that we are living in the “Age of Discord” (Turchin, 2016). One of the consequences of these high levels of political and social stress is a disquieting increase in the negative tone and tenor of political debate (Shea and Spoveri, 2012).

The increasingly hostile nature of discourse in the public sphere is partly due to a rise in what has been called “tribal politics” in which distaste for members of the opposite political party has driven a pronounced change in political civility. Clearly, the general public is concerned. A recent national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that fully 85% believe that the tone and nature of political debate have become more negative and less respectful in the last several years (Drake and Kiley, 2019). Another survey reported the responses to the following question: “How concerned are you that the negative tone and lack of civility in Washington will lead to violence or acts of terror?” The results show that 45% were “very concerned” and 34% were “concerned” (Montanaro, 2018). Finally, on March 1, 2019, the Washington Post featured the following headline: “In America, talk turns to something unspoken for 150 years: Civil War” (Jaffe and Johnson, 2019). This phenomenon has not escaped the attention of learned observers of American politics as they examine the causes and consequences of the rise in “nasty” politics (Boatright, et al., 2019; Clayton and Elgar, 2012; Hebst, 2010; and Mutz, 2016). These trends have also infiltrated national political institutions. Benjamin Franklin believed that Congress should be a mirror of the American people, so it is not surprising that the contemporary United States House and Senate have reached near historically high levels of polarization and political incivility (Mann and Ornstein, 2016; Uslaner, 1993). An important and heretofore understudied question is: What impact have these trends had on the 99 state legislative assemblies (recall that Nebraska employs a unicameral form of government)?

The research reported in this volume examines the following questions from a variety of perspectives: Has the crisis in civic discourse and political civility in the population at large and the U.S. Congress been replicated in the state legislatures in the 50 states? What factors are most closely associated with both positive and negative civil discourse in statehouses around the country? There has been a large number of studies and reports on the topic of political polarization in state legislatures, but none we have found focus specifically on the topic of political civility.1

Political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty mapped the ideological distance between the parties in each state legislature from 1993 until 2016. According to their findings, first published in 2011, at least 34 state legislatures were more polarized than the U.S. Congress at the time of their study, with California, Colorado, Washington, Arizona, and Michigan being the most polarized (Shor and McCarty, 2011). Among the least polarized legislatures, according to the Shor and McCarty data, were Arkansas, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and Delaware. In February 2018, the National Conference of State Legislatures released a revised version of a report titled State Legislative Policymaking in an Age of Political Polarization (NCSL, 2018). This report focused on ten case studies of states to examine the extent to which polarization has had an impact on policymaking. The report concluded that most of the legislatures in their sample were able to negotiate differences and reach negotiated settlements on major policy issues. More recently, Seth Masket examined why some state legislatures have become more polarized (like California and Colorado) in the past few decades and why some (like Connecticut and Kentucky) have become depolarized (Maskett, 2019). Among the factors he identifies as contributing to polarization in statehouses are the increase in economic inequality, the decline of state political journalism, and complex mixtures of district-level public opinion that cause some legislators to simplify their choices by following party cues.

  1. It is common to think that polarization and incivility go hand in hand. While polarization certainly can contribute to incivility, it is possible to be polarized but respectful and civil. Indeed, chapter two of this volume reports the counterintuitive finding that members of more ideologically polarized legislatures appear to behave in a way that is more civil than members of legislatures that are less ideologically polarized.

Historically, state legislatures have been important centers of policymaking in the United States. Part of this importance is enshrined in the Constitution, in which government powers not expressly provided to the federal government are reserved for the states. Since the early 1960s a number of important changes have taken place that have increased the importance of state policymakers. One change was the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and other “entitlement” programs that began to alter the focus of the federal budget. Along with defense spending, these programs currently account for over 85% of all federal expenditures, leading Ezra Klein to quip that the U.S. government is an insurance company with a standing army (2011). More recently, partisan gridlock and policy inaction in the U.S. Congress have liberated states to adopt new policy initiatives, with the legalization of recreational marijuana as perhaps the best example. States have also had an important role in shaping policies related to the environment, climate change, public safety, and immigration. Clearly, state governments have become a new central locus of activity as policymakers struggle with pressing social, political, and financial problems.

A portion of the institutional support for this book project and the data reported herein came from the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. This is most fitting, owing to Mr. Foley’s reputation for encouraging civility and bipartisanship throughout his thirty years in the U.S. House of Representatives, the final six years as Speaker of the House. When he died in October 2013, many of his friends and colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, came together for a memorial service in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Capital in Statutory Hall. An article that appeared in the Washington Post at the time captures the prevailing sentiments of the tributes.

In one of the most stirring moments, former House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said that he and Foley knew “that there would always be a distinction and separation between campaigning for office and serving in office. We were, I guess, pupils of the old school.” “He knew that if we wanted to be effective in the House, you just can’t go around shouting your principles, you have to subject those principles to the test of open debate against those that don’t share those principles,” Michel said. “But true debate is not principled unless the ‘Golden Rule’ is applied, which simply means that you treat your fellow members the same way you want to be treated. Tom believed in that rule and he practiced it.” Returning to the present, Michel added: “I only hope that the legislators who now walk through here each day so consumed by the here-and-now will feel his spirit, learn from it and be humbled by it.” (O’Keefe and Rucker, 2013)

During the same memorial service, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said that Mr. Foley “believed that he should build and not tear down, reconcile and not divide. He stood for the principles of diplomacy and mutual respect even toward his opposition. He did not subscribe to the politics of personal destruction” (O’Keefe and Rucker, 2013).

In our view, civility is not the avoidance of conflict, the suppression of genuine and principled positions, nor is it a lack of disagreement. Rather, civil discourse, to our way of thinking, is a thoughtful inquiry into another person’s assumptions and conclusions, and the presumption of goodwill despite disagreement. As we move forward in these difficult times, it is increasingly important that lawmakers, at all levels of government, discover ways to work together for the common good. We believe that the findings and conclusions set forth in this book assembled by Lovrich, Pierce, Benjamin, and Schreckhise will come to serve as an important contribution to the academic and practitioner dialogue regarding political civility in the United States.

Steven Stehr, Sam Reed Distinguished Professor in Civic Education and Public Policy
Washington State University
Pullman, Washington

Sam Reed, 14th Secretary of State (three terms of office)
State of Washington
Olympia, Washington

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