The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Saturday, May 1:
We might be a nation divided when it comes to our politics, but apparently we're united in our distaste for political incivility. We don't like it, we don't want politicians to practice it, and we're tired of the way the media exploit it, according to an unusual national poll by Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.
Americans have always disagreed on the best way to take care of our nation's business, but the opinion is widespread that we've veered way off course in the ways we express our disagreement. The shrill level of today's public discourse does a disservice to our democracy.
"A core finding of our study is the potential long-term danger posed by the conduct of contemporary politics," Allegheny College researchers said in a prepared statement accompanying the April 20 release of the poll, one of the first conducted on this topic. "We believe our study signals a warning: Americans do not like the way we are 'doing politics,' and they believe hostility and vitriol are signs of an ailing system." The report includes this quote by columnist and author E.J. Dionne Jr.: "A nation that hates politics will not long thrive as a democracy."
According to the poll, 95 percent of Americans believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy. Half of the respondents said the tone of American politics has degraded since Barack Obama was elected president, and more than two-thirds said Americans should be ashamed of the way elected officials behaved during the health care reform debate. Majorities from both parties as well as independents expressed this view.
By wide margins, Americans agree that certain kinds of behavior are out of bounds: belittling or insulting someone, questioning an opponent's patriotism, commenting on race or ethnicity, shouting down an opponent and manipulating facts to win an argument.
Women have a higher tendency than men to perceive certain behaviors as uncivil. The poll results also make clear that the antics of politicians from both major parties are pushing people away from those parties and toward the independent bloc.
In other words, the parties are hurting themselves with rude, unfair and hurtful behavior. That's something Democrats and Republicans should consider as they court voters this fall: Meanness is a voter turnoff.
There's no question that our nation confronts many divisive and urgent challenges - illegal immigration, abortion, economic crisis, government deficits, health care reform and two foreign wars, to name but a few. Being firm in one's convictions on such issues is admirable. But there's nothing admirable in being openly hostile to others who don't share those convictions.
If politicians sense a mood of "throw the bums out" among the American electorate, this poll can serve as a useful manual for political survival. It's OK to disagree, but keep it within the bounds of civility.
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