Can’t We all Just Get Along? The Death of Civility in Politics

May 22, 1856 The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner-

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

In recent times we have witnessed a steady increase of violence stemming from competing political ideologies. However, political violence is nothing new. Historical examples are plentiful, including the French Revolution, Slavery and the Civil War, racial violence during the Civil Rights era, Nazism and the September 11 attacks. One particularly alarming example that may be akin to what we are seeing at political rallies today is in 1856 the “pro-slavery South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks went into the Senate and beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist, with his cane, nearly killing him.” Although we are shocked by these historical examples, it seems that we are seeing an unfortunate return to a violent political past in America. Social media and the news is full of protesters arguing, getting into fist fights, using clubs and sticks to attack protesters and now recently we see a disturbing increase of people resorting to mass murder because the perpetrators adhere to a white supremacist political ideology.  

In Alan Golds article “The Death of Civility in Politics” he asks several questions:

“Just how rude has today’s life become? And just how much is the tone of our politics to blame? Does it sometimes feel as if our politics has us all backed into our ideological corners? Does it seem as if insults and name-calling have taken the place of civil dialogue – that incivility has gone viral?”

In the article Gold cites New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg who states “I think the country is in crisis… it’s less a result of a breakdown in civility than a breakdown of democracy… We have a crisis of democracy, not manners. I think the demand for civility can be used as a tool of oppression when it only goes in one direction – when you demand civility from the ruled, but you don’t demand civility from the rulers.” Goldberg’s primary argument is that civility has to be a two way street. It has to come from our elected officials as well as the masses.

In a democratic society it is very important that people get to share their voice and that they feel comfortable coming to the table to discuss any subject. However, if certain parameters are not in place and certain guidelines of civility are not in place it can be very difficult to have a meaningful conversation. For example, it can be very difficult to hear when individuals from both sides of a particular debate are talking past one another. It is also difficult to share one’s true feelings if they fear that they will suffer consequences as a result of voicing their opinion.

The concern in the United States today is people’s seeming lack of ability to have any tolerance for opposing socio-political views. It behooves us to try to be more open minded and tolerant of other people’s view and those that disagree with us. There is an increasing need for people to have the ability to have a civil discourse and conversation and not lose one’s temper when someone disagrees with them. The country is divided in many ways, this is ironic because one of the core values of the American democractic society is tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism. America has been known as the melting pot, where individuals from various cultural, racial, political and social backgrounds can co-exist. Scholars have even moved from the metaphor of the melting pot to the salad bowl. With the salad bowl, people do not sacrifice their identity to adopt Euro-American values, instead, they hold on to their cultural background but at the same time embrace what it means to be American. There are growing divisions in US society along many ideological and social lines, these divisions often stem from debates between democrats and republicans, European Americans and people of color, rich and poor, along religious lines and many more. 

The social studies classroom is a great place to teach students the idea of civility. Social studies teachers often have very strong political and sociological views, but should be the first line of defense in demonstrating to students how to be civil. Teachers can set up scenarios where students learn to discuss or debate controversial topics without being disrespectful or worse becoming enraged and acting upon those emotions. I have included some resources below that can help teachers lead students in conversations and exercises surrounding civility and having a civil discourse.

Lessons and Strategies for Civil Discourse
Civil Discourse in the Classroom- Teaching Tolerance
Three Steps to Civil Discourse in the Classroom- National Council for the Social Studies
Promoting and Maintaining Classroom Civility
Teaching Civility Helps Students Look Beyond the Importance of Good Manners
7 ways to teach civil discourse to students

Will Politics be the Death of Civility?
National Institute for Civil Discourse
What is Civil Discourse?


  1. I think a reason why this trend of hostile political conversations seems to have risen is due to people living in bubbles. We surround ourselves with people, and primarily consume content from people and organizations, that agree with what we believe. So, when we encounter someone who doesn’t have the same ideology as us, we can become defensive due to the almost disbelief that someone can actually think the way that the other person does. Hostility in political debates and conversations is not a new thing, as shown by the examples in the article. However, it may seem that way to some people due to how often people can be exposed to it now. Older examples, such as Nazism during WWII, were seen daily by those affected by it and those in the countries where it was actively being brought up in peoples lives. People living in other parts of the world and even in America, pre and post-America’s involvement, were not directly affected by it daily and could actively avoid seeing it if they wanted. In current times, people are exposed to hostility in politics while walking through campus, listening to the radio, scrolling through social media, and while sitting down to family dinners. It is not new, and most likely will never go away so long as politics still exist. The only way to start making a change away from it is exhibiting the kind of characteristics through your own actions that you want to see become the norm.

  2. While reading this article I would just think of what I see on a daily basis on social media. Whether it is people ranting at each other or videos of people fighting over their views it seems to be a regular thing. I agree with the article that there is a loss of civility out there. It is as if people can not sit down and talk but must express how they feel with violence. I feel in order for us to move forward we must be more open minded and be able to listen to one another.

  3. In highschool, I was on the speech and debate team. This experience turned me into a bit of an argumentative person, and one thing I have noticed is that when I am having a discussion with someone who has an opposing viewpoint, the longer the debate, the more we dig our heels into our original belief. Even if we are both making valid points, it’s difficult to say that the other person is right. I think most people have this problem, they are so worried about being right that its hard to see other points of view. This is when the incivility begins. It is incredibly important that people, especially public/political figures, is that; one, it is okay to be wrong sometimes and, two, just because someone else is right it doesn’t always mean that you are wrong.

  4. Michelle Goldberg’s statement is something I think all Americans should read. When the serious lack of civility in our country is demonstrated by our government officials, it only provides a terrible example of violent behavior to our citizens who are already divided. If politics are going to be discussed, each party should do their best to listen and not interrupt, have an open mind, and understand that an opinion is just that: an opinion.

  5. This is a very broad topic as a whole but this article i will have to agree with because i have been seeing so much diversity not only in social media but if you look around at everyday life you notice it. Not only in the bigger cities but you notice it more in small towns. A lot of today’s society is all about where you come from and how you are raised and many people don’t raise their children to be more open minded toward other cultures or political views and it is tearing this country apart. Now saying that doesn’t mean that those who are more opened minded are right this simply means that they look at other POV’s before stating their opinion. The ones who more open minded can also be the ones who are tearing society apart because they may be the ones who are “shaming” those with only one POV thus creating diversity.

  6. I have seen this a lot lately as I scroll through social media and see people using foul language while having a heated debate over politics. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and no ones voice should be hushed, but nowadays people have become close minded when it comes to hearing someones differing opinion. I have seen families and friendships torn apart due to an inability to look past someones political stance. In an ideal society we should all be able to come together to create a place that is welcoming to everyone, no matter what political party you identify as. We are all humans who are trying to survive in this world,and we should not make it harder for one another. That is obviously not the case in today’s world, like this article says “this country is in crisis..”, which is in my opinion, due to this being an age of sensitivity and entitlement, we need to be able to come together again to rebuild our broken society.

  7. Although it outwardly seems as if the United States has made progress on civility in democracy, the same division is essentially just taking a different form. Although the inclination to form your own opinions and stances is great– it is surely done to a fault in a lot of cases. I think opposing stances, in many ways, have become almost encouraged and expected to bring upon division– whether done consciously or unconsciously. Individuals should hold fast to their formed opinions but they also should hold fast to civility. I think I’ve often been influenced that voicing my opinion will result in chaos or conflict, which often leads me to stay silent. Our differences should in a way unite us and be glorified– not build up walls between us. I hope this expectation of violence or hatred based solely on one’s different beliefs is changed. And I hope teachers and other positive figures across the nation use their influence to promote civility and bring awareness to the lack of it.

  8. The death of civility in politics is primarily due to the fact that civilians fail to respect the opinions of others. Instead, they immediately resort to violence whether it is physical or verbal. It saddens me to know that people are afraid of speaking their opinions because of the risks associated with doing so. We are all entitled to our own opinions and being beaten or verbally harassed won’t change our views.

  9. This topic has been weighing on my mind a lot lately, especially with the political climate. It seems that people cannot even have an intelligent, adult conversation with someone that happens to have a different political view. As soon as you state that you feel one way about something, you are attacked. When Trump came to Cincinnati this summer, one of his supporters physically assaulted a peaceful protester. It’s extremely sad that so many view the United States as a great country where they can come to live a better life and we can’t even be tolerant of other people’s opinions. Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean you have to attack or belittle someone. I hope something changes soon.

  10. The United States was founded on democracy, and it is so sad that it seems like America has forgotten what a true democracy is. Opinions are not something that should be fought against with violence, rather, they should be embraced and argued with words and counter-arguments. Our country has lost almost all civility in political arguments, which shouldn’t be the case. I hope that all teachers can welcome debates and open discussions about differing opinions because it will teach students to argue their side with proper argument etiquette instead of violence.

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