← Close Menu

Close Menu →

early returns Powered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Poll finds civility is declining in American politics

There’s been a worrisome decline in the civility of American politics, and it may be infecting even those of us who aren’t running for office.

Don’t agree? Then you obviously have no friends and hate our freedoms.

That kind of rhetoric may be where our political discourse is headed, judging from a Zogby Survey on Civility in U.S. Politics, commissioned by Allegheny College in Meadville, Crawford County.

Of 1,286 adults surveyed, 69 percent said that it was not acceptable for a politician to comment on someone’s race or ethnicity — a much smaller majority than the 89 percent who felt that way in a similar survey six years ago. Meanwhile, 65 percent said commenting on someone's sexual orientation was unacceptable, down from 81 percent in 2010.

The survey also found increasing acceptance for acts that have traditionally been defined as rude, like interrupting or shouting over somebody in a public forum, insulting them or questioning their patriotism.

In a telephone call with reporters, Allegheny College president James H. Mullen Jr. called the findings “disturbing and in many ways chilling.” Voters, he said, are “expecting less in the political process in terms of civility.”

“There seems to be less emphasis on, and a decrease in, acts of civility among adults nationwide,” said Zogby Analytics CEO Jonathan Zogby in a release accompanying the poll. “That might explain the state of politics at the moment.”

Or it may be the other way around: The state of politics at the moment could be normalizing once-taboo behaviors. Nearly two-thirds of voters characterized the 2016 election as “extremely or very uncivil.” (An iron-stomached 11 percent found it “extremely or very civil.”)

It’s not clear who is to blame.

Most of those surveyed by Zogby identify the less decorous tone with Donald Trump: 59 percent found the Republican nominee “extremely or very uncivil,” nearly double the 32 percent who said the same of Ms. Clinton. Mr. Trump and his supporters delight in being “politically incorrect.” Yet 45 percent said both parties were responsible for declining civility in 2016, compared to cone-third who said this in 2010.

Such concerns were on the mind of Alexander Heffner, who hosts the PBS show “The Open Mind” and spoke to students at Duquesne University Monday afternoon.

An increasing inability to reckon with different outlooks, he said, “seems to be exacerbated and crystallized in the slime that is emanating from … the campaign.”

Mr. Heffner often faulted Mr. Trump, saying his campaign was launched by “demonizing people of color” through attacks on immigration. But he also decried “the gerrymandering of our political discourse,” in which Americans were increasingly “agreeing to live in two different universes: Mars and Venus … red and blue.”

Anyone with a Facebook page knows social media can become a political echo chamber. And in his 2008 book “The Big Sort,” author Bill Bishop points to a demographic trends suggesting that “we have built a country where everyone can choose the neighborhood (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs.” Consequently, he wrote, we “can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”

Allegheny College, for one, is trying to do its part, by handing out a prize for civility to elected officials who model the behavior. This year’s winners were Arizona Senator John McCain and Vice President Joe Biden. In June, Mr. Mullen said that while their relationship was “grounded in absolute disagreement on almost every key issue … they’ve managed to forge a friendship and work for the good of America.”

The question is whether America cares. In the survey Mr. Mullen’s college commissioned, only 56 percent of people say that "elected officials should pursue personal friendships with members of other parties.” That’s down from 85 percent in 2010.

Tracie Mauriello contributed. Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.

First Published October 17, 2016 9:11 AM