Incivility in local politics

Illustration by Peter DeHart

Local politics is usually known for its pedestrian character, more Mayberry than mayhem. However, recent episodes in Lafayette politics have taken on the flavor of reality TV episodes, complete with raised voices, smashing gavels and cut microphones in an attempt to return to order. Outside of council meetings, the quagmire of vitriolic social media comments has exhausted even the most devoted of news followers.

Studies have found that not only do people pay more attention to topics that incur uncivil discourse, but they’re more likely to become informed and offer their own opinions. 

The perception of incivility in national politics is well known, with a July 2017 national poll finding that 70 percent of Americans believe civility has gotten worse since the 2016 presidential election, and a surprisingly high consensus across partisan lines (81 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement). But local politics was often thought to be immune from such sources of national influence. The handling of the debates — over everything from the potential deal for a private entity to run LUS to the proposed home rule charter amendments, the proposal for an additional and inclusive South Louisiana flag, and the Drag Queen Story Time arguments — has left many wondering not just about policies but also the very character of our discussions.

While it’s tempting to think that politics is currently at a new height of incivility, we’ve struggled with civility throughout American history. Given numerous examples of incivility in America’s political past, from the Presidential election of 1800 to the interrogations by Sen. McCarthy, to President Clinton’s crass behavior in office and the ensuing impeachment trial, there seems room for doubt that the last decade differs significantly from those preceding it.

Though there is wide agreement that incivility in political discussions is more prevalent now, incivility itself is still a slippery concept. Negative comments, of course, can be made civilly. Reasonable minds can have a polite and even spirited disagreement, for instance, over whether a change in the Lafayette Parish School System’s revised homework and academic honesty policy is a net benefit for students, teachers and parents. However, incivility implies comments that move beyond the realm of policy differences into personal attacks. The difference of opinion is no longer grounded in facts or values alone, but rather questions the motives or intelligence of those on the other side. For example, accusations or insinuations that an elected official is doing something underhanded or crooked without providing any evidence is a common theme in uncivil discussions.

For those who study incivility, there are real and potentially troubling consequences. Watching uncivil debates actually lowers trust in government and also causes viewers to find opposing viewpoints less credible. Moreover, incivility is contagious. Watching uncivil political debates influences the way people talk about politics themselves. In one recent study, viewers who watched uncivil political debates on cable news used increased levels of uncivil language in their own conversations when later discussing political candidates. The use of uncivil language in politics begets a cycle of negativity that can have lasting effects beyond current policy issues.

The fact that uncivil discussions have a long legacy as part of our democratic process hopefully offers some comfort for those in despair over the current level of debate surrounding our local issues. 

Despite the negative consequences, there are some surprising and often ignored potential fringe benefits to incivility. Most important, incivility raises the salience of issues. Topics and policies become of interest to a broader public that would otherwise be viewed as too technical, boring or within the exclusive domain of policy wonks and nerds. Studies have found that not only do people pay more attention to topics that incur uncivil discourse, but they’re more likely to become informed and offer their own opinions. Hence, in an unexpected way, incivility can breed civic engagement.

Turnout at recent Lafayette City-Parish Council meetings bears this out, especially on “open-mic” nights when citizens are allowed to address the council for up to five minutes about any topic of concern. The online debate over the Lafayette Public Library’s scheduled Drag Queen Story Time resulted in more than 30 individuals speaking to the council on that topic with relatively short notice. Even less socially polarized issues such as the management of LUS and the home rule charter amendments drew large crowds who offered public comment at the council meetings. The charged nature of the conversations, among the public and among the council itself, surely contributed to the increased attention and engagement.

Many of our historical struggles have involved numerous moments of uncivil tension. Even Martin Luther King Jr., one of America’s strongest advocates for civil discourse and civil disobedience, used his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to criticize not extremists but moderates. As he put it, the great stumbling block in the fight for freedoms wasn’t the Ku Klux Klan or the white nationalists but instead the white moderate who preferred order to justice. Though today we think of Dr. King in terms of his civility, he was openly criticized in his own time for inspiring incivility, disorder and mob behavior. The use of creative tension — creating drama to call attention to injustice in policy and law — has been one of the longest standing nonviolent means to call for change in American history.

Though the fight for the autonomy of the city of Lafayette has been compared to the fight for American autonomy in 1776, most of our local issues do not rise to the level of historical injustice associated with the American Revolution, Civil Rights Movement or contemporary civil rights struggles. But even so, the fact that uncivil discussions have a long legacy as part of our democratic process hopefully offers some comfort for those in despair over the current level of debate surrounding our local issues. Though uncivil discourse is frustrating and exhausting, the very fact that it can engage new participants and re-engage those who’ve been disaffected is cause for hope.

About the Author

Christie Maloyed is an associate professor of political science at UL Lafayette.

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