Thursday, December 14, 2017
Politics

Campaign's disdain for civility could leave lasting damage

When a South Carolina congressman shouted "You lie!" during a speech by President Barack Obama in 2009, House members rebuked him for violating norms of civility. After this year's presidential campaign, the idea that people were once troubled by the outburst seems almost quaint.

Civility in politics has been declining for years, both a cause and symptom of a changing culture where anonymous verbal assaults are fired freely across the internet and cable TV routinely broadcasts words once banned from the airwaves. But Donald Trump's presidential run took name-calling and mockery — things that voters long said they detested in their candidates — and normalized them into a winning political strategy.

Now Trump the president-elect is calling for unity in words that draw attention precisely because they sound so unlike Trump the candidate. But many question whether it is possible to reverse the campaign's damage to political discourse and its ripples out to the way Americans speak to and about each other.

"There's plenty of blame to go around on this subject, but I think in this particular election that an embrace of Donald Trump was an embrace of incivility and vulgarity and insults and bullying, and unfortunately we saw very little public repudiation of that from any Trump supporters," said Mark DeMoss, an Atlanta public relations executive and conservative Republican whose clients are mostly Christian religious organizations.

DeMoss, who abandoned a campaign called the Civility Project in early 2011 after only three members of Congress would sign a pledge to act respectfully, watched the degradation of political speech for years. Then Trump's campaign, he and other longtime observers say, stomped well past what was thought to be acceptable.

"We can all point to incidents in campaigns across history, but I think this one probably does represent a new place in terms of incivility," said James Mullen, president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., which awards a prize each year for civility in public life.

"What worries me the most is we're becoming almost numb," Mullen said.

In some ways, Trump's rhetoric is an outgrowth of cultural and political shifts.

A generation before the internet, political backers were leaving fliers attacking rivals on voters' windshields in the dark and blanketing neighborhoods with anonymous direct mailings. Social media made it possible for ordinary people to disparage political enemies widely with no risk, saying things they might previously have told only their close friends.

"Into that world comes a candidate who uses Twitter as a primary mode of communication," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies political communication. "He lives in a world in which this stuff is being trafficked back and forth, and that normalizes this kind of discourse for you as a candidate."

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