In the current heated political season, it can be helpful to know this is not the first time in America’s history that politics have gotten ugly.Cornell Clayton will discuss political incivility and polarization, including contributing factors and their role in democracy, during a talk at 6 p.m.March 29 at the Lewiston City Library.
Incivility isn’t new, Clayton said, and was expected this election cycle, regardless of whose faces dominated the media.
Clayton is the director of the Thomas Foley Institute at Washington State University and has explored the topics of polarization and incivility for some time. Disconcerting though it may be, it is not the first time — or even the worst — that America has seen such behavior in politics.
“I try to put it into a broader historical context,” Clayton said.
Clayton relayed the acrimonious formation of the country and not long after when Andrew Jackson was so uncivil they called him “Andrew Jackass.” The moniker stuck and well, where did you think that blue donkey came from anyway?
The Civil War, William McKinley’s presidency in the 1890s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in the 1930s were times of deep turmoil, and more recently, the 1960s brought the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
Historically, incivility tends to rise when political polarization occurs, Clayton said, which is when parties “take increasingly disparate views on policies.” Polarization has increased the past couple decades, but he was quick to point out that these different views are not a bad thing as far as democracy is concerned.
It gives the public an opportunity to choose from very different and predictable policies, Clayton said, and parties are better held accountable for what they do. Another win for democracy is that polarization leads to participation.
“Political engagement has gone up over the past couple decades,” Clayton said.
Election participation has increased from about 50 percent in the 1960s to around 60 percent today and voting in primaries or caucuses, donating to parties and volunteering for parties have all gone up.
Polarization alone doesn’t necessarily result in incivility, Clayton said, rather it tends to rise when a second factor is introduced: a closely divided electorate. With the presence of polarization, constitutional governments like the United States require either compromise or elections where one side overwhelmingly wins, Clayton said, as was the case from 1932-68, he said, when Democrats were the dominate party. A close election, for example, or having one party in the presidency with another in Congress leads to stalemates on creating policies, passing budgets and decisions like Supreme Court nominations. As a result, nothing happens.
“And that’s what frustrates Americans,” Clayton said.
Frustration gives way to incivility because people feel the stakes are high and there is little that they can do about it.
“A little bit of incivility isn’t a bad thing from a democratic standpoint,” Clayton said.
Incivility can actually advance democracy, Clayton said, citing the original tea party, women’s suffragettes and the modern civil rights movement. He contrasts this type of incivility from that which erodes democracy by silencing or isolating people, often through violence or intimidation.
What does all of this mean for the future of American politics?
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Clayton said. “But the way polarization has ended in the past is that one side becomes so extreme that they lose consistently in elections.”
The result is that the party either ceases to exist, he said, as when the Whigs gave way to the Republicans in the 1850s, or the party reforms itself, as the once-conservative Democrats did under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“I think you see something happening to the Republican Party,” Clayton said of the current political situation. “I think in 20 years we’ll see a very different kind of Republican Party or even a third party.”
Either way, it’s not the first era of political upheaval America has seen, nor is it likely to be the last.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Political Incivility and Polarization in America
WHEN: 6 p.m. March 29
WHERE: Lewiston City Library, 411 D St.