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. This is a very well written article! I agree with you saying that we all need to find compromises or a common ground in order to resolve situations. I believe that the United States needs to have a complete shift in regards to politics and and culture. We let our emotions get involved in so much and it creates a lot of issues for our country!

  2. The metaphor of the salad bowl I think is a great way of describing how all of the individuals of America want to live their life. In American alone there are many different cultural differences when simply driving an hour out of your home town. The salad bowl creates the idea that everyone can have their own cultural aspects and keep their identities and history. By having the idea that we can all function in the same society with our own values we help create civility among the people. With civility there is an even space for all people to be heard, which is the point of democracy, and a fundamental part of America.

  3. This is something I have been trying to tell people for a while! In order for real change to happen we must be able to look past our disagreements and try to find compromises that will please both sides. People clinging to their individual views rather than trying to see another person’s point of view keep us in a never ending cycle of no solutions being made because the ability or willingness to make compromises has disappeared.

  4. I think the United States needs to have a complete political culture shift, which is always a difficult thing to do, but the US has a long history of being active in political conversation, and yet at the same time have a desperate need to be “correct” leading to a close minded attitude. This is very counterintuitive and snuffs out intellectual conversation. This history of political fighting has been brought to the forefront and has become more and more common due to the increase of social media and instant connection and has caused party gaps to grow so far that many cannot even have a civil political conversation, this leads many Americans to say that they hate talking politics and causes people to be less active in their government while those extreme close minded people to be more focused on and active in the government. I feel like the united states needs a shift in attitude towards politics and I think it would be valuable for kids to learn in schools how to debate and how to have these civil political conversations. There is very little defined correct and incorrect within a political stance, and I think it is so incredibly important for people to understand, at the very least, why someone of an opposite stance may feel the way they do. People think the goal of a political conversation is to convince the person you are talking to to think like you and to realize your “correct” but if we want to stop the violence and close mindedness of the current political climate we must shift the way we have these conversations. To realize they are for both sides to learn and understand each other, and if that brings a change in thought, great, if not it was still a chance to understand and sympathize with another person even if you do not necessarily agree.

  5. I feel that there are multiple reasons that there is a lack of civility in politics. One reason that stuck with me was a quote from New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg that is discussed in the article “Can’t We all Just Get Along? The Death of Civility in Politics”, Civility must come from our elected officials as well as the masses. It has been clear in politics lately that our elected officials do not know how to act civil towards one another, or the people they represent. In the 2016 presidential debate, both presidential candidates acted quite uncivil toward one another. Name calling and talking over one another are things you expect to witness in primary grade levels, not from potential leaders of our country. Another example of a lack of civility is Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. Bevin seeks to find a replacement for the pension system. Instead of acting properly toward teachers of Kentucky, Bevin instead blames them for children being left in the way of harm due to teacher protests that closed schools. Attacking an opposing political candidate or a group that disagrees with policy that you are trying to put in place does not solve problems. Instead, it further deepens the political divide between Left and Right.
    I also feel that it is crucial as social studies teachers that we teach our students how to be civil towards others, especially when they disagree. Teachers often say that “those who will change the future are in our classrooms today”. This is why it is so crucial to teach civility, as to better the future generations over what we have throughout history, and currently are currently experiencing.

  6. As I read this article, I regularly reflected back to the interactions I myself have had and the interactions I have witnessed on news and social media outlets. I believe a large portion of the lack of civility amongst individuals is due to a lack of open-mindedness and mutual respect for one another. Often when an individual disagrees on a topic, individuals feel threatened and that they are being judged or attacked for their views. When this happens, these individuals often lash out at the other in an attempt to make themselves feel better. If we are to address this issue, we must first teach students that it is okay to disagree with one another. Also, that disagreement does not equate to disrespect in any means. It is critical that we foster environments that allow students to develop civility in a way that will hopefully counteract the displays currently shown on the news and social media outlets relating to disagreements.

  7. The part that stood out to me from the article was the quote stating, “The concern in the United States today is people’s seeming lack of ability to have any tolerance for opposing socio-political views.” It is saddening to know how far we have come not only as a country, but also a society where we struggle to listen to opposing views and be tolerant. Two of the founding concepts of our country was on diversity and acceptance of each other’s differences, making our nation a Melting Pot. Teaching the concepts of debate and discussion with civility and respect is something that needs to be practiced more often, and hopefully teachers can start showing students what that looks like.

  8. It feels as though the majority of people in the United States are completely intolerant and close-minded when it comes to other people’s beliefs and opinions. Many people physically and emotionally cannot handle the possibility that someone might think differently than them. With the rise in social media usage, it has become far too easy for people to anonymously write hateful comments and threats while hiding behind a computer screen. Dr. Childs commented on how America is supposed to be a democratic society with tolerance and diversity, but ironically, it has become extremely divided. As future social studies educators, we have the unique ability to make a difference and break this divide. We must teach our students how to be civil and respectful of other people’s ideas and beliefs. We must help instill open-mindedness and acceptance in the hearts of our students at a young age and teach them that it is more than okay to be different.

  9. Dr. Childs mentioned how the country is divided in many ways which is ronic because one of the core values of the American democractic society is tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism. This shows are far gone America is and how America need a serious intervention. Civility is a core value of America, yet many Americans today cannot seem to tolerate other types of America nor do Americans today accept the “salad bowl” society anymore and many are voicing it, not in a particular civil way. Part of that discourse for civility is freedom of speech. You can expect people to tolerate others, and value the diverse and multicultural society of today when many rulers have made incivility a common trait one can hold through outlandish forms of free speech.

  10. Social media has developed into a place where one can share extremist political beliefs and opinions and be rewarded for it. It allows people to share unpopular opinions without any serious repercussions and it allows people with these opinions to feel as if they are the norm. This allowance develops an intolerance towards opposing opinions, and what could be productive conversations quickly turn into heated debates and threatening comments. I feel that people sharing these opinions online often do not care about civility because they can remain, in some form, anonymous. I also feel that, as civility has lessened in online conversations, people are starting to believe that it is okay to be less civil when these conversations happen in person. It is important for the idea of civility to be encouraged in all classrooms, especially as the new generation grows up with continuous access to online political conversations where civility is not preferred.

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