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How Did American Politics Lose Its Civility?

Researchers look at the road to rudeness and chart a path to more respectful discourse.

September 14, 2016 Robert Bradford

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson found himself in the political race of his life. Jefferson was running for president of the young republic and needed an edge in the election against John Adams, his friend turned philosophical and political foe.

Jefferson called on a journalist and pamphleteer named James Callender. He secretly funded Callender’s attacks on Adams, who was soon denounced as a hypocrite and warmonger. Adams, Callender declared, “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”

Adams and his supporters retaliated. They called Jefferson an atheist and seized on racist attitudes, dubbing him the “son of a half-breed Indian squaw.”

When the name-calling ended and operatives finally put down their quills, Jefferson won the election.

Fast forward 216 years, and the mudslinging tone of the presidential race sounds surprisingly familiar. During every presidential election cycle, pundits seem to utter the same declaration: “This could be the nastiest, bloodiest race we’ve seen in years.” Sometimes they’re right.


Over the last two decades, fundamental changes in the political landscape, global economy and technology have changed the tenor of politics and civility in society. The pamphlets and journals of Jefferson’s day have given way to seemingly endless news and opinion outlets, from magazines and websites to social media, television programs, radio shows and podcasts with political viewpoints. Discourse often descends into the rude and crude. Republican presidential candidates talk about the size of one’s hands—and its physical implications, nudge nudge—during a national debate. Supporters of a Democratic presidential candidate throw chairs and issue death threats over delegate counts in Nevada. A woman running for the Texas education board alleges that President Barack Obama was a gay prostitute in his 20s and used the proceeds to pay for drugs.

“Today anybody can say anything and everyone has a channel. Senator Pat Moynihan once said, ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.’ Now everybody has their own facts,” says Robert Shrum, veteran political consultant and professor of politics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “You can go to the website you want, to the TV channel you want, and get the facts you want.”

Shrum has witnessed many of the highs and lows of campaign rhetoric during dozens of election cycles in American politics. He has steered campaigns for U.S. Democratic presidential candidates, congressional representatives, governors and mayors for the last 40 years.

Today anybody can say anything and everyone has a channel. Senator Pat Moynihan once said, ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.’ Now everybody has their own facts.

Robert Shrum

He worked with Ted Kennedy in the 1980s when there were clearly strong philosophical and political differences between Republicans and Democrats. But he points out that there was a different tone then.

“Amid their differences, President [Ronald] Reagan and Kennedy worked together on immigration reform. Reagan and [Democratic house speaker] Tip O’Neill compromised on Social Security. Reagan would go out and have a drink with Tip O’Neill, and he could raise funds for the Kennedy Library,” Shrum says.

“Today, a lot of the pragmatism that I have seen in my political career has been driven out of the system. What I see politicians focusing on is not a series of programs and policies, but more on alienation and anger.”

Data from the Pew Research Center seem to confirm a growing divide in politics: Democrats and Republicans have moved farther apart. According to Pew, more than nine of 10 Republicans today skew more conservative than the typical Democrat. Compare that to the 1990s, when that was true for more than six out of every 10 Republicans. Similar shifts happened among Democrats: Today more than nine out of every 10 of them are more liberal than the average Republican, up from seven out of every 10 in the 1990s.

Jack Knott, dean and the C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Chair and Professor of the USC Price School of Public Policy, links the declining civility in society and rising polarization of American politics to three key changes in governance: the gerrymandering of congressional and state assembly districts to create more “safe” constituencies for each party; the primary voting system that bases candidate selection on the participation of the most extreme partisans; and the McCain/Feingold campaign finance law that had the unintended consequence of redirecting large campaign funds to extreme political interest groups.

These three issues are particularly important given the unevenness in the distribution of income in the U.S., he adds.

“We are in the midst of the greatest economic inequality in America since the late 19th century, and the bulk of the middle class is slowly shrinking away. We are seeing growing disaffected groups of workers who have not seen their paychecks increase over decades,” Knott says.

“There is also the fear of terrorism and the changing demographics of the country. We are becoming an increasingly multicultural society, and many people feel unsettled by this.”

At the same time, Americans’ trust in government has plunged to new lows, according to national surveys. During such uncertain times, people have a tendency to return to survival and coping instincts, says Jesse Graham, an associate professor of psychology at USC Dornsife whose research focuses on how ideology and morality interact to influence human thought and behavior. “We are tribal by nature, and it’s very easy to turn that tribal switch on,” Graham says. “I think politics becomes a trigger for tribalism.”

Graham points to a famous study by the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the 1950s. Sherif divided up a group of 11- to 12-year-old boys in an isolated, mountainous setting and gave the groups names: the Eagles and the Rattlers. The groups lived near each other, and each group was allowed to bond and form allegiances without contact with the other group. Then the experiment team introduced competition between the Eagles and the Rattlers. Baseball games quickly devolved into name-calling, the tribes vandalized each other’s camps, and soon they were ready to fight with rocks and sticks before the researchers stopped the violence.

Graham believes that the dynamics and dysfunction of the Eagles and Rattlers experiment can be seen in myriad tribes today—liberals versus conservatives, vaccination supporters versus anti-vaxxers or the National Rifle Association versus the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, for example.

And the goals of the tribes center too much on attacking the credibility and character of the opposing tribe, he notes, rather than on getting along. “If your goal is just obstruction and to stop the other side, that doesn’t lend itself to civility,” Graham says.

So that raises the most important question during these contentious times: Do people from all of these tribes—Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, biomedical researchers, environmentalists, climate scientists and climate change skeptics, just to name a few—have any chance to get along in the 21st century? Bonnie Reiss, who is the global director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, believes that different political tribes can work together by making changes to the political system, and she has a body of experience to prove it.

Reiss, a lifelong Democrat who clerked for Sen. Ted Kennedy and worked with President Bill Clinton on the 52nd Presidential Inauguration, spent five years as a senior advisor to California’s Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from 2003 to 2007. “Arnold wanted to surround himself with people from different backgrounds and find common ground,” Reiss says. “And that is the mission of the institute—to solve problems without regard to politics or ideology.”

The USC Schwarzenegger Institute has done research on how two California reform measures reduced partisanship in the state. In 2008, California voters approved the creation of an independent panel to draw district lines. The goal was to end political gerrymandering, a practice that allowed elected officials to draw their own political district lines and ensure that districts would consistently be Republican or Democratic.

California voters approved a second significant reform in 2010 by ending the closed primary system—where only partisan voters could participate in primary elections—and replacing it with a top-two primary system. The top-two system allows all voters to participate in one primary, and the two candidates receiving the most votes, regardless of party, face each other in the general election.

Reiss and her colleague Christian Grose, a USC Schwarzenegger Institute faculty fellow, summarized the results of their research on these two reforms in a 2016 op-ed in the Sacramento Bee:

“The research shows a significant reduction in legislator ideological extremity, with a 34 percent reduction in the Assembly, and a 31 percent reduction in the Senate. This has led observers who once considered California ‘ungovernable’ to look at it as an example of what is possible when partisan polarization is reduced.
“We also conducted research outside of California that compared the outreach and messaging of candidates in states with closed primaries to those with open primaries and top-two primary systems. Here, too, the findings were significant. Candidates were more responsive to independent voters in both open and top-two primaries, and candidate messages to voters of the other party were more bipartisan in open primary states and even more so in top-two primary states.”

Like Reiss, Dan Schnur still sees the possibility for civil discussion and positive political change during these complicated times—especially starting with young people. Schnur directs USC Dornsife’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, where he helps students from across the political spectrum engage in government and public service, and teaches popular classes in politics, communications and leadership. Schnur has decades of experience as a political reformer and a leading political strategist and communicator. He has worked on issues ranging from redistricting to rebuilding the political center.


“At the Unruh Institute, we host 20 to 25 events a year that are designed to include a range of viewpoints and ideologies so our students understand different political perspectives,” Schnur says. “We ask people to explain what they believe without demonizing others. We want our students to understand that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil—they just happen to have come to different conclusions and deserve respect.”

For Schnur’s colleague Shrum, this approach of teaching measured discourse, well-articulated arguments and agreeing to disagree is perhaps the only way forward. Shrum doesn’t see any neat, simple solutions to the current problems of political discourse. He doesn’t believe that civility in society can be legislated, and he knows there’s no way to control the accuracy of information as it filters through the internet, social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

For Shrum, it all comes back to the idea that individuals are capable of elevating the way they interact with others and taking responsibility for how they express their arguments. “I think we have to come back to Jefferson’s notion. The best answer to bad speech is good speech,” Shrum says.

Maybe focusing on common problems, rather than fixating on personalities and winning at all costs, is the most promising approach. The Founding Fathers did that. A decade after Jefferson and Adams battled bitterly for the presidency, they became friends and regular correspondents, returning to the intellectual high ground that represented the best of their political careers.

On Jan. 21, 1812, Jefferson wrote words to Adams that perhaps could inspire today’s politicos to opt for civil compromise:

“A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless under our bark, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port.”