Maybe people just need a word of advice from Thumper’s mom: “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Or tweak it a bit to, “If you MUST say something, you can do it nicely.” Those are the dual impressions one gets from the results of the Center for Political Participation’s national poll in which fully 63 percent of Americans detect an increasingly nasty tone to politics — a tone so vicious that many of them believe it threatens democracy.
But hope springs eternal, as an overwhelming majority believe that candidates can be respectful to others even as they are passionate about their positions, according to the third civility poll center at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., has produced in conjunction with Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Nearly 65 percent of the respondents to the poll, conducted during the four days running up to the Nov. 2 midterm elections, believe politics have become less civil since President Barack Obama took office nearly two years ago. That’s a leap from 48 percent in the first survey, in April, and up from 58 percent in a second poll conducted in September, two full months before the midterms.
Professor Daniel M. Shea, director of the Center for Political Participation noted that the first poll took place right after the contentious healthcare reform vote. Although political tensions and tempers were running high then, Shea said, “The dramatic increase in the perceptions of negativity since then is stunning. Things have gotten even worse."
Nearly half of the 1,252 registered voters in the pre-midterm survey, which SurveyUSA conducted between Oct. 28 and Nov. 1
, said this year's election was the "most negative they had ever seen."
Of course, the negativity in U.S. politicking generally is rhetorical and/or unseemly TV ads rather than the outright physical brawls that occasionally break out among lawmakers in other countries.
Another one-fourth in the U.S. civility poll said campaigning this year was "more negative than in the past," but they had seen worse. Only 4 percent said that campaigns were more positive than previous years.
"Sure, memories are short and it's common for all of us to think the most recent election was the worst," Shea said. "But these polling results are powerful. Nearly three out of four people believe this election was one of the nastiest they have ever seen."
Nearly 65 percent of those polled said the rude tone of politicking is unhealthy for the U.S. democracy. Just 17 percent believe the lack of civility is healthy for democracy, and 14 percent said it doesn’t make a difference.
Meanwhile, 90 percent of registered voters believe it is "possible for candidates to run for office in aggressive, but in respectful ways."
"This percentage actually grew by 5 percent from our mid-September poll," said Michael Wolf of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, co-author of the study. "Just because the public views campaigns as brutal, particularly this year's, doesn't mean they think it has to be that way. At least for now there remains some optimism out there."
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