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Host: Scott LaMar

Where Has the Civility Gone?

Written by Rich Copeland - Producer, Smart Talk | Oct 31, 2016 1:28 PM

Allegheny College recently released the results of a survey that measured the perception of civility in modern political discourse.  The poll, conducted by Zogby and commissioned by Allegheny, showed large increases in the public's tolerance for both candidates and voters arguing, interrupting and name calling.

Scott LaMarr, host of WITF's Smart Talk, spoke with Allegheny College president James Mullen, Jr. about the survey, and the impact the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential race is having on Americans.  Mullen began by sharing the motivation for this poll:

"In 2010, at Allegheny, we were concerned about the state of our public discourse, particularly as a liberal arts college that is over 200 years old, and our entire premise as a college is based upon civil discourse around important ideas.  And we asked Zogby to see where the nation stood on questions about civility, and it bore out that there were concerns in the American public about the quality of the national discourse.  In 2016 we asked Zogby to take the same look at the state of affairs, and across the board, sometimes by double digits, the public's acceptance of incivility has seems to have increased significantly.  And I think that's part of a numbing effect that we're seeing because of this kind of discussion we're seeing at the national level.  There's an very unfortunate stew being played out here of invective and personal attack and demonization that is very concerning for the future of our democracy, and particularly concerning because it will drive young people out of politics.  And if that happens, I think we're in a very difficult place."

Mullen spoke of the role contemporary media plays in contributing to this type of discourse:

"I think we live in a world of 24 hour news cycles, where the internet drives a good deal of the discussion, not always in a civil manner, often in a very uncivil manner, we live in a world of reality TV, and I think when you put it all together, and you layer in the well-known reality that negative campaigning works, we have seen a level of acceptance I think, and I use the word 'numbing' of what we will accept as uncivil behavior in public life."

Mullen didn't blame Republican candidate Donald Trump for bringing this trend about, instead saying "our entire political system is feeling this ," and that while "he has adopted a strategy of incivility, I think the challenge is wider than that."

Mullen outlined the potential danger of maintaining this level of incivility in political conversation with a look back at elections past:

 "I'm old enough to remember the end of the Kennedy administration, but I also remember in the years afterwards the sense that politics were noble, it was a calling, it was a vocation that one should pursue and there was joy in politics.  And I think Ronald Reagan gave evidence to that as well.  We all remember Hubert Humphrey, the 'Happy Warrior,' Nelson Rockefeller; there was a time where you could battle in the arena and engage in fierce conversation, at times.  And TOUGH politics.  But you never went over the line where you lost the joy in politics.  Our young people are seeing nothing joyous, now, in the conduct of American politics.  I find there is no joy, there is no calling."

Mullen isn't fully disheartened, though.  He sees people like the students at Allegheny as the chance to bring civility back to the American political discussion:

"My great hope is the young people I see every day.  This generation has an idealism about it, I think that it wants to see things happen, it wants our country to succeed and do well and it wants our democracy to thrive.  If we can keep shining a light on that and people who have shared that commitment and have brought it to national service and to community service in the public arena - I find hope but it's going to have to be this next generation that needs to pick up the baton and carry it.

Both President Mullen's interview with Smart Talk and the results of the Allegheny College poll on civility can be found at our website,

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