A Crisis of Civility? : Political Discourse and Its Discontents book cover
1st Edition

A Crisis of Civility?
Political Discourse and Its Discontents

ISBN 9781138484429
Published February 25, 2019 by Routledge
260 Pages 21 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

The state of political discourse in the United States today has been a subject of concern for many Americans. Political incivility is not merely a problem for political elites; political conversations between American citizens have also become more difficult and tense. The 2016 presidential elections featured campaign rhetoric designed to inflame the general public. Yet the 2016 election was certainly not the only cause of incivility among citizens. There have been many instances in recent years where reasoned discourse in our universities and other public venues has been threatened.

This book was undertaken as a response to these problems. It presents and develops a more robust discussion of what civility is, why it matters, what factors might contribute to it, and what its consequences are for democratic life. The authors included here pursue three major questions: Is the state of American political discourse today really that bad, compared to prior eras; what lessons about civility can we draw from the 2016 election; and how have changes in technology such as the development of online news and other means of mediated communication changed the nature of our discourse?

This book seeks to develop a coherent, civil conversation between divergent contemporary perspectives in political science, communications, history, sociology, and philosophy. This multidisciplinary approach helps to reflect on challenges to civil discourse, define civility, and identify its consequences for democratic life in a digital age. In this accessible text, an all-star cast of contributors tills the earth in which future discussion on civility will be planted.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Gabrielle Giffords

Preface by Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer

Introduction: A Crisis of Civility? [Robert G. Boatright]

Part I: How Americans Think about Civility in Politics

1. Two Concepts of Civility [Simon Anthony Laden]

2. How People Perceive Political Incivility [Ashley Muddiman]

3. Perceptions of Incivility in Public Discourse [Kate Kenski, Kevin Coe, and Stephen A. Rains]

4. Signaling Incivility: The Role of Speaker, Substance and Tone [Emily Sydnor]

Part II: Instances of Civility and Incivility in Contemporary American Political Discourse

5. "Showdowns," "Duels," and "Nail-biters": How Aggressive Strategic Game Frames in Campaign Coverage Fuel Public Perceptions of Incivility [Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, Lindsay Hoffman, and Danielle Roth]

6. Crises and Civility: Twitter Discourse after School Shootings [Deana A. Rohlinger and Cynthia Williams]

7. Can Civility and Deliberation Disrupt the Deep Roots of Polarization? Attitudes toward Muslim Americans as Evidence of Hyperpolarized Partisan Worldviews [J. Cherie Strachan and Michael R. Wolf]

8. Disentangling Uncivil and Intolerant Discourse in Online Political Talk [Patricia Rossini]

Part III: Learning from the Past

9. Seeking a Mutuality of Tolerance: A Practical Defense of Civility in a Time of Political Warfare [John Gastil]

10. The Patron Saint of Civility? Benjamin Franklin and the Problems of Civil Discourse [Steven C. Bullock]

11. Enabling Civil Discourse: Creating Civic Space and Resources for Democratic Discussion [Timothy J. Shaffer]

Conclusion: The Real Morality of Public Discourse: Civility as an Orienting Attitude [Deborah Mower]

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Robert G. Boatright is Professor of Political Science at Clark University and the Director of Research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) at the University of Arizona.

Timothy J. Shaffer is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State University and Principal Research Specialist for the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Sarah Sobieraj is Associate Professor of Sociology at Tufts University.

Dannagal Goldthwaite Young is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Delaware.


“The publication of this book is a call to join with the National Institute for Civil Discourse in its mission of improving our spaces for civic dialogue. Fundamentally, I believe that to achieve the aspirations expressed in our founding documents, we must be able to engage in civil public conversations among citizens of the greatest possible diversity all across the country.”

Gabrielle Giffords, former U.S. Representative, from the Foreword

A Crisis of Civility? is vital to our national dialogue on the exigency of civility in our society.  In these pages, a network of prominent scholars make a compelling case for civility as the one essential mechanism for distilling the vast diversity of ideologies and opinions in America, so that we can arrive at solutions to our most pressing challenges.  Today’s forces of division and proliferation of sensationalism have combined as virulent enemies of civility.  Fortunately, the National Institute for Civil Discourse is leading the movement to revive civility, compromise, and consensus building.  Now, we must all join the cause and remind one another that, as we debate our differences, our use of words is powerful and critically important in setting a constructive tone for the important conversations that will determine America’s future.”

Olympia Snowe, Senior Fellow, the Bipartisan Policy Senator; Former United States Senator

“Americans all along the political spectrum are worried about our ability to get along and develop constructive solutions for our political problems.  So many of our country’s challenges are made even more difficult by a lack of opportunities to engage in civil discourse, to talk across the boundaries that can too often divide us.  The chapters in this book provide clear-eyed discussions of contemporary politics that help us to understand how we got to this point and how we can work together to improve our democracy.  This is essential reading for scholars, practitioners, and anyone concerned about our nation’s future.”

Tom Daschle, Founder and CEO, The Daschle Group; Former Senator and Senate Majority Leader

“As the media continues to cover our increasingly coarsened political, public and even private discourse, this research will be critically important to our understanding of how words can be weaponized and language can motivate violence. This book will also be invaluable as we revive the democratic norms of civility and respect. I can’t wait to share it with my colleagues.”

Katie Couric, former anchor and managing editor, CBS Evening News, former special correspondent, ABC News

“The best antidote for the bitter partisanship that has overtaken American public life is also the simplest: getting people of diverse viewpoints to know and listen to each other.  The thoughtful chapters in this book are an invaluable addition to NICD’s effort to keep American democracy vibrant and strong.”

Mickey Edwards, Vice President, The Aspen Institute; Former United States Representative      

“If we are serious about restoring civility, we need to know how to recognize it and what actions might improve it, how different disciplines approach the challenge, and how past civility crises have ended. This book is a treasure trove of clear thinking and analysis to guide the restoration of civil discourse.” 

Alice M. Rivlin, founding director of the Congressional Budget Office and former vice chair of the Federal Reserve

“Many Americans perceive a crisis of incivility, yet demanding civility may suppress worthy voices. If you seek insight on these and related issues, A Crisis of Civility? is the best available guide, filled with thoughtful, original contributions by scholars who represent diverse perspectives and approaches.”

Peter Levine, Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University

"How should the fractious state of politics be understood? And what can be done about it? With contributions from an impressive array of scholars, A Crisis in Civility? surveys public perceptions of civility, details contemporary examples of incivility, and mines the past for practical solutions. It is essential reading for a time when common decency no longer seems very common."

Keith J. Bybee, Vice Dean and Paul E. and the Hon. Joanne F. Alper ’72 Judiciary Studies Professor, College of Law, Syracuse University

“This first of its kind interdisciplinary, research-based examination of civility in politics sheds light on the importance of improving the current tenor of political discourse to enhance the wellbeing and safety of our nation.  The contributing scholars also underscore the pressing need to promote understanding, tolerance and respect for the differences among us, which is a guiding principle for the field of psychology.  This is a must read not only for those in politics and journalism but also for the public at large.”

Arthur C. Evans, Jr., Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, American Psychological Association

“America has many solvable problems, and because of our dysfunctional politics, we are likely to solve few of them. This collection of essays’ by some of America’s top researchers is therefore essential. It will help readers to understand the various kinds of civility, why most of them are declining, and what we can do—as individuals and in organizations—to bring about better public discourse.”

Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership, New York University Stern School of Business, and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

“I don’t think a day goes by in the United States when I don’t see or read about a fracture in our civil life—whether it be a bully’s words, a politician’s accusations, or a mass murder. Make no mistake we have a crisis of civility in this country today. The National Institute for Civil Discourse was founded out of one such tragedy—the attempted assassination of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2010 by a lone shooter. In the years since then, the NCID has become the leading voice on reviving civility in our country and this collection of essays—taken together—is an urgent call to action to seek what binds us rather than what divides us. There is no more important topic to the survival of our democratic experiment.”

Steven Petrow, USA Today Opinion Columnist; Host, The Civilist Podcast