Historically, times of major national crisis have typically brought us together, as Americans united behind a sense of common purpose. But according to new polling data, voters think this summer’s triple crises of COVID-19, an increased spotlight on racial injustice, and a sharp economic downturn have done anything but. Add to that the backdrop of a presidential campaign, and it seems that many of us are united mainly in agreeing that we've become more divided.
For the past year and a half, the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service Civility Poll has been tracking voter attitudes on polarization and civility in politics. And while the data shows voters believe the hole in our political discourse is deepening, it also reveals a roadmap on how we can begin to dig out of it.
How bad is it?
Bad. Our polling shows that over the past 18 months, voters overwhelmingly believe that the political, racial, and class divisions in this country are getting worse and our national dialogue is breaking down. Nearly 90% express frustration by the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians. They believe that political behavior that was once seen as unacceptable has now become normalized.
In fact, they see it getting worse. Nearly six in 10 voters believe politics has become less civil since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. And when asked to rate the level of division on a scale of zero to 100 (with zero being no division and 100 being the edge of civil war), the mean response has risen to over 70 in the past year.
Who's to blame?
There’s good and bad news here: no one really escapes blame. Solid majorities of voters across the board attribute an increase in bad political behavior to social media platforms, wealthy special interests, President Trump, Republican and Democratic political leaders, and major cable news networks.
While voters are willing to assign blame to their preferred institutions—a majority of Democrats concede that their party’s political leaders and CNN are at least somewhat responsible and a majority of Republicans are willing to give some blame to Trump, GOP leaders and Fox News—the intensity of the blame is very much polarized along partisan and racial lines. Overwhelmingly, voters attribute the most responsibility for incivility to those across the aisle.
The summer protests across the nation following the death of George Floyd put an even finer point on this polarization. While 70% of voters overall were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, divisions quickly emerge. Less than 10% of Republicans and about a third of white voters believe that the protests were both needed and civil. In contrast, more than six in 10 Democrats and black voters felt that way.
How much do voters want more civility?
On the surface, a lot. The desire for more civility is as close to universal as you'll find in a poll. But when you scratch the surface, you see the challenge in actually achieving it.
When asked if they want leaders to seek common ground and compromise, nearly nine in 10 voters say yes. But at the same time, more than eight in 10 voters say they are tired of leaders who compromise on their values and want them to stand up and fight the other side. It’s almost as if they're saying, "We want common ground. And as soon as you come over to where I'm standing, we'll be on common ground."
And there's the big problem. Political leaders respond to the will of the voters. But even the most skilled political leaders would have trouble walking that tightrope.
So what do we do?
Despite all of these challenges, the data provides some concrete steps that we can take.
- Political leaders have to police their own. Both Democrats and Republicans are quick to pounce whenever someone from the opposing party steps out of line. But they're far less willing to do so when it's their own. For example, few Republicans stepped in to denounce President Trump’s racist birtherism comments about President Obama four years ago, or his more recent comments about Sen. Kamala Harris. Similarly, when a Democratic member of Congress proclaimed of the president, “We’re going to impeach the motherf***er,” many in party leadership looked the other way. No matter what side our political leaders are on, voters need to make it clear they don't find this behavior acceptable, and stop making excuses or looking the other way.
- Change the channel. Not surprisingly, where people get their information colors how they look at political discourse. And our media has become as polarized as our politics. Democrats appearing on Fox are told on social media to “go back to MSNBC where they belong,” while some Republicans on MSNBC receive similar comments that their perspectives aren’t welcome there. Instead of remaining siloed into Fox or MSNBC, voters would be well served to pop their information bubbles and try to understand where the other side is coming from. In fact, it’s our responsibility as citizens that we do this to be well-rounded and informed.
- Think before retweeting. People blame social media first for the state of our political discourse. But social media is often a reflection of its users. Americans must consider how their own actions on social media contribute to the toxicity of our politics, and how to step away. We were encouraged when, a few days after a discussion about civility at Georgetown, several students told us that they had gone to retweet a post but pulled back when they realized it would only add on online toxicity. It takes seconds to think before “liking” or retweeting a divisive post. But if large numbers of social media users took the time to follow the lead of those students and reflect before engaging in these actions online, our discourse would undeniably improve.
- Try to understand the motivations of the other side. We live in filter bubbles, surrounding ourselves with people who think like we do. That means fewer opportunities to listen and understand what motivates the other side, and more opportunities to just assume their motivations. If Democrats can stop calling all Trump supporters racists and misogynists, maybe they can learn the motivations of those who aren’t—and make a more compelling argument about the policies they support. If Republicans can stop calling all Democrats socialists and radicals, maybe they would learn the same. And if both sides do it, maybe we can detoxify the discourse.
There’s no question that we are living through one of the most polarized times in recent history. And our political leaders, the mainstream media, and social media platforms all need to play a role in fixing it. But they all follow the political marketplace, responding to the will of their voters, viewers, and users. If we truly want them to clean up their acts, we need to demand—and model—better behavior ourselves.