The Great Divide

"You Lie!"

These words shouted at President Obama during a fall 2009 health care speech to Congress raised the hackles of legislators on both sides of the aisle and prompted a call for greater civility in our national political debate.

And for a while, it seemed like things were calming down.

But angry rhetoric in political debate and on the nation's airwaves tends to ebb and flow with the nature of current events and whatever high-stakes issues are on the table.

For example, last fall, Maine's Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage told an audience that if he were elected, they'd see newspaper headlines reading "LePage Tells Obama To Go to Hell." and this spring, Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter accused right-wing Republicans of coming to Congress "to kill women" when they held up budget negotiations with demands to cut off funds for Planned Parenthood. through it all, media pundits ramped up their own inflammatory rhetoric to the point that observers wondered if rules of civility even apply anymore. It's not a stretch to conclude that America is more polarized than ever and that civility in politics is a thing of the past.

But this is really nothing new, according to Steve Woolpert, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Saint Mary's. "Angry, uncivil discourse has a long history in American politics," especially during periods of "You Lie!" upheaval, he said. Today, Americans are grappling with the trauma of an economic meltdown and a dramatically changing demographic. "We're in an age of anxiety and insecurity. If people feel that they're politically impotent and that other people can't be trusted, you have a society that is going to lose civility," said Woolpert.

This time it's different, though, said Robert Reich, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, who spoke this year at Saint Mary's as part of the January Term Speaker Series. "There's a kind of anger out there that I have not witnessed before," he insisted.

Reich believes that the political divide is rooted in the growing income gap between the working class and the wealthy elite in America. the last time the gap was so wide was in 1928 — just before the Great Depression.

"Times of economic hardship breed demagoguery," he cautioned. "If the wage imbalance is not redressed, American politics will get angrier and uglier."

Woolpert agrees that history is full of demagogues who have riled up anger against the elite during hard times. "It accentuates polarization and fragmentation. Our sense of common purpose is sacrificed, and that's dangerous. I am concerned about it because, if we're faced with a common threat, we'll be less willing to respond for the common good."

Saint Mary's alumnus Frank Howard Jr. '79, who heads Howard consulting Group, a public affairs advocacy firm in Washington, D.C., holds a different view. While he agrees that politics have always been partisan, with strident ideological battles, he thinks that's not such a bad thing because "we live in perilous times. We need serious people who are involved in government. I'd rather have the debate than not, and I'll fight for the freedom of each person in the country to express their opinion."

Nevertheless, Howard, who has served in key staff positions on numerous Republican political campaigns, including the presidential runs of Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and George W. Bush, feels that politicians today have to jump over more hurdles to find common ground.

"There are more difficulties in bringing the sides together now because the issues really touch people's lives — jobs, health care, education, the environment."

The Role of the Media

But what about the tenor of the national conversation? Has it become too vicious, particularly in the media? Today, instead of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, we have the likes of Fox News' Glenn Beck or mSNBC's Rachel Maddow. Instead of hard news, we have "the news of assertion and opinion," said Father mike Russo, who teaches journalism and communications at Saint Mary's and is an expert on the interaction of politics and the press. "There's a place for that, but a steady diet has driven us all crazy."

It often seems like we are at each other's throats, Russo said, pointing to the explosion of media resources — from newspapers to the Internet, cable TV, talk radio, blogs and Twitter — as a factor in the fragmentation of public opinion and hardened stances. A 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism bears that out. Fifty-five percent said the Internet increases the influence of those with extreme political views, and people on both sides said they often relied on news sources that reinforced their own views.

"People gravitate to information from and conversations with like-minded others, perpetuating one way of looking at things," said Barbara McGraw, professor of social ethics, law and public life, and director of Saint Mary's Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism. "This has always happened, but it seems much easier in our current media climate. The more people are balkanized in their little groups, the less effective is our discourse in the public square. When people are stuck in their camps, there isn't a free exchange of ideas and people are much more likely to become radicalized."

In such a media climate, the temptation to use inflammatory language to boost ratings or win followers also seems irresistible. "The media is, in effect, inviting a food fight," Russo suggested. The result is what He calls "holy ignorance" — a tidal wave of uninformed but outraged opinion.

Divided — or Not?

The resulting partisan divide is evident at the highest levels. A 2011 Gallup Poll indicated that the most recent two presidencies have been the most polarizing since the survey began in the mid-1950s. while 81 percent of Democrats approve of Barack obama's presidency, just 13 percent of Republicans do. Only George W. Bush's term produced a greater gap in the presidential approval rating.

But Morris Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that despite their differences over the president in power, Americans as a whole are not more polarized than in the past.

He points to surveys of U.S. voters that show the political spectrum has hardly changed since the 1970s. Consistently, about 40 percent of Americans say they're political moderates and less than 5 percent say they're either strongly liberal or strongly conservative. the parties, on the other hand, are becoming more polarized, if Congressional voting records are any indication.

Why? The civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950s and '60s and the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1970s and '80s resulted in a sort of ideological purification process in the two main political parties, Fiorina explained. As a result, few politicians are willing to cross party lines to vote with the other side, making it much harder to strike a bargain, as we saw during this year's federal budget standoff.

Furthermore, he noted, "Democrats are appealing to their left flank and Republicans to their right flank. The public face of politics is these activists. It has an enormous effect on politics, to the frustration of the vast percentage of the American people."

More and more, Fiorina said, people are fleeing the party system altogether and registering as independent or "decline to state." As a result, winning elections depends on winning the swing voters, He noted, and politicians may be resorting to ever more extreme rhetoric to woo this fickle new force.

It's a risky gambit. Woolpert thinks this current political climate, characterized as it is by personal attack, seems too dangerous to ignore for long. "On the other hand, we don't want to overreact and rout out rudeness at the expense of robust, vigorous debate," he said. "There are times when outrage may be an appropriate response."

McGraw, too, stresses the importance of protecting the freedoms we value, including freedom of speech, despite the strain it sometimes places on our society.

"The moral heart of our political system is the Bill of Rights, the keystone of a nation committed to liberty and equal justice for all. It's what frames America's identity — not as it is but as it should always strive to be." she said. "That's why people everywhere are still drawn to its message and long for freedom, self-expression and the ability to pursue a good life for themselves and their families."

So, What's the Answer?

Perhaps we need a new model of leadership, said Ken Otter, director of Saint Mary's Leadership Studies Programs, which focus on creating change through civil discourse rather than contentious debate.

Our political dialogue is an artifact of outdated models of leadership, he said. This "habit of argument, debate and advocacy" just serves to amplify problems instead of leading us toward consensus. "Politicians are public servants, but many have lost track of it because of the intoxication of power," he observed. In the process, the old adage that "politics is the art of compromise" seems to have fallen by the wayside.

And while confrontation does seem to stimulate interest, offered Woolpert, "it also erodes social capital — the glue that holds us together — trust, democratic tolerance, willingness to hear and engage with those who don't agree with you."

How Can We Bridge the Political Divide?

For Reich, the outlook for any immediate return to civility in American politics seems dim. "In the short term, i expect more partisanship," he said. "Longer term, we may see a ‘realignment' — a new consensus emerging about the role of government, business, Wall Street and the working middle class."

Woolpert stressed the value of a liberal arts education as a critical factor in building the social capital that we need to hold our nation together. "It shows us how to engage across differences and listen to the voice of reason," he said.

For her part, McGraw would like to see the nation return to what she called "our sacred ground" — the principles upon which the country was founded. "Our founding fathers believed that in order to build a good society from the ground up, it was important to have the free expression of many voices," she said. "The current sharply polarized thinking between Left and Right tends to take all the oxygen out of the public square." Paradoxically, it seems, greater civility may be essential if we are to preserve the free exchange of ideas the founders valued so highly.

Otter, however, believes that our increasingly complex world — and the prospect of permanent gridlock on important policy issues — will force people to adopt a radically new approach to political discourse.

"If we're going to make any progress in the world, we have to go beyond our personal positions, roles and ideologies," he said. "We need to focus on generating outcomes that go beyond self-interest to the social good."

- Teresa Castle