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. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say
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  2. My social media feeds are filled with people from both sides of the political spectrum. I’m fortunate because I feel it gives me a well-rounded perspective when it comes to articulating and positioning my own political platform. And I truly enjoy wit, no matter who is being skewered. That said, I also know that I am extremely circumspect about keeping politics off of my own output- I stick to uncontroversial topics like music, pictures of my child, history, and gardening. The vitriol I see spilled scrolling fills me with dismay- strangers resort to vulgarity and threats within one comment, and I am unutterably unbearably sad that discourse has gone the way of the dodo. Keyboard warriors stalk message boards and comment threads, and there’s a smugness that irritates me, as well. I’m not putting myself on a plane above, but I do think that in so many circumstances I have practiced what I preach to my daughter (8) about discussions, and big feelings, and certainty, and and keeping an open mind. I have got to be a model for my daughter, and let her develop and grow her own opinions- not to mold her, but to give her the proper tools for socially developing and being inquisitive and accepting. And that goes for far more than mere political debates.

  3. I have not personally heard of the cases of violence sparked by politics that this article described, but I am not surprised to hear about them now. When watching the news, I often hear the reporters talking over each other and yelling at each other when they disagree. It is very disappointing to see professionals act this way. I feel that educating students in schools about how to have a civil conversation with someone on a controversial topic is key to solving this problem. We need to start early. Teaching students how to have these kinds of conversations in school is proactive rather than reactive. That way, they can learn before they get into the habit of having non-civil and inappropriate political conversations. Personally, I avoid controversial and political conversations most of the time to avoid all of the arguing and unpleasantness they often involve. Ideally, people should be able to feel safe voicing their opinions, and to achieve that goal, we must teach them how to have civil conversations in schools.

  4. It seems that civil conversations are unfortunately becoming a thing of the past. With politics divided even more than ever, one side is always against another and having a conversation to discuss differences simply isn’t enough any more. It is scary to think that people turn to violence so easily now days and that violence seems to be the first solution. Something has to change to get civility back and to sway this way of thinking.

  5. This article talks about civility in our country at a time where very little is being seen. I find it interesting when people act as if this is a new concept when in reality the violent acts have been going on since at least the French Revolution. It is also interesting when people say that it does not really happen and that it is just the media. I have heard both extremes and find myself not agreeing with either side. It is still happening but it is not new. I really love the quote from Michelle Goldberg. She is absolutely correct that civility must be demanded by all for all.

  6. I believe a lot of the death of chivalry in politics has to do with the news. I see on news networks that lean toward both sides just attack people for anything and everything even if it has nothing to do with the thing they are arguing about or even to spread lies. I find this not only disgraceful but harmful towards democracy when people stop listening to each other they start to put up walls and make each other feel different and people hate what is different, this is turns just causes hatred and violence in the world. I think the American people should stop getting their news from all of these large biased news sources that are just publishing fake news for views and money and turning a blind eye to the real issues.

  7. This is something I have not thought about before. Certainly politics have always been a high-steaks issue even in ancient societies. I also liked some of the examples that were listed in the article since they can be observed as true. We are always probably going to have people get overly-agressive with people whose political ideologies are opposite of their own.

  8. I think the problem of civility in politics is not only a problem in the U.S. but also in countries throughout the world. Not only civility but violence when it comes to achieving political gain is an issue. Too many political issues are attempted to be achieved through violence and once they are achieved through violence and unending cycle of violence and corruption in government takes place. The perfect example of this in the modern world is the struggle for power in Venezuela. Citizens claim a leader to be corrupt and demand their head only for a new leader to come in that is just as corrupt as the last restarting the cycle. For true political change to happen and become a permanent change, this change must be achieved through civil and non-violent means.

  9. In times like these which really make the phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall” hold so much more weight as we watch division strike through the country, tearing apart each piece of unity which we have spent years cultivating. It is crazy to see our country, founded on the idea of true freedom, be torn apart by the very thing it prides itself on. Our freedom of speech has evolved in ways never before dreamed of, as people, fueled only by anger and disgust, turn into mass murderers in the blink of an eye when someone simply does not agree with them. As both a women and a person of religion, I have felt the hate first hand and often fear the results of speaking my mind in a place filled with people against me, and I know that this is true throughout America, as having a civilized discussion between two different opinions has become nearly impossible. It is a scary path we as a country have begun treading down and we can only hope that we can make the decision to step back, realize our mistakes, and turn towards a better and brighter future.

  10. This has been a rising issue for quite some time but especially since the 2016 election. Political parties are more divided than ever. Today, if someone has a differing point of view regarding politics they most likely will not associate with one another. In our country we are supposed to be free to have our own mindsets and opinions but lately people are getting verbally and sadly sometimes physically assaulted for having opposing opinions as someone else. It is not the fault of one political party. It is the fault of the radicals of both political parties who simply can not tolerate other humans. This has been a downward spiral and people are getting hurt because of it. Something has got to change soon.

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