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 that this is another touchy topic due to some individuals lack of respect and immaturity. Although we all have a right to form our own opinion, I sometimes think that there is a loss of civility in politics due to the arguments that can arise based on different opinions and beliefs.

  2. Our democracy has fallen apart in our country. Everyone has their own opinions, beliefs and values but in our world today you can’t even discuss your own opinion without being threatened. People protest and fight back when they don’t agree with someone instead of just letting things go. You’re allowed to have your own opinions and in today’s world that doesn’t seem to be the case. Just turn on the news for instance and I’m sure you will see a situation that has to do with two people disagreeing because they have different opinion on something and that is why our country will never be the same and why our democracy has fallen apart.

  3. I believe this trend is a result of the republican party becoming more and more conservative ever since the days of Reagan and Bush Senior. The days of the republican party having some centrist and liberal ideals are gone and it is now more than ever us vs them, them being the democratic party. This trend has not only affected congress but the American population as a whole with how people defend and argue for their political party.

  4. You can definitely see the loss of civility in political discource occurring across social media platforms. Meaningful discussions where individuals meet common ground unfortunately do not provide engagement. Insults and jokes fuel many discussions, and it almost seems as if this is the default for any political discussion. Actions of others are seen as being representative of an entire group. While this can ultimately be true, it is dangerous to carry an array of assumptions when engaging with others.

  5. The United States is a Republic, founded on the ancient ideals of democratic process. One of the key tenets of this ideal is that all opinions are given a fair chance to be heard and considered. I believe this should continue to be the case, unless the opinions being expressed are that of disgusting or violent nature. No matter how civil you think this country should be I do not think we should ever sink to a level where we allow white supremacists, neo-nazis, or other brands of terrorism to have a fair and open stage to express those beliefs.

  6. I believe many see today’s political climate as so “rude” due to how it is so easy to consume media, and to have an outspoken voice in the media. You can always turn on your television and see opinions on the breaking news of the day, at any hour. While that may not be a relatively new thing, the rise of social media is, and it gives anyone who wants it, a platform. Intolerance is not a new issue either, but the spreading of intolerance to everyone can be seen as one, due to the use of social media. People find others who may share the same “rude” views towards individuals on the other side of the political ideological spectrum, and that encourages them to speak out even more. In my opinion, the problem has to begin being solved in the school systems. I agree fully with your notion that social studies classrooms are the most important place of lessons on civility to take place.

  7. Democracy is what America was founded on. We are all entitled to our own opinions and values. Everyone is different and has a different view point. Its important that we are able to communicate with one another about politics without people simply shutting down when someone doesn’t agree with them. Recently, Americans have become awful at listening to one another, instead resorting to violence.

  8. In my 21 years of life, I have never seen as much hostility towards one party and the other. I feel like we live in a world where no one can sit down and have a civilized discussion on todays issues. For example, here at NKU towards the beginning of the school year we had anti- abortionist and pro- abortionist yelling at each other trying to get their point out. I don’t believe that they realize that they didn’t get their point across, yelling, fussing, and cussing doesn’t lead to civilized and intellectual discussions.

  9. As our country is moving forwards in technology, our social media platforms seem to be used to state strong, not always factual, opinions that then lead to the arguments mentioned in this article. Not only is this an issue within politics, but I also believe it aligns with what Dr. Childs mentions about it being difficult to hear opposing sides of debate and leading to a withdrawal from those who would like to share their thoughts but are now afraid of the consequences of doing so. I believe that it is not politics itself that is the issue, but the people (myself included) that contribute to the uncivil attitudes of our present day political conversations.

  10. America has failed its “democracy” government. With our current government officials it’s difficult for anyone to show their opinions if it’s not in line with those government officials. Take for example, a few weeks ago, Trump visited Dayton after the shooting there. His route was purposely rerouted to avoid protesters and then when he left the hospital they lined the streets with ambulances so he wouldn’t see protesters. Their voices were being silenced, completely ignoring our first amendment. Everyone is always going to have their own opinions but I hope soon people will keep an open mind to the other side of their beliefs.

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