We Have a Civility Problem; Let’s Fix It

Learn more about Chris Walsh.
Chris Walsh
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

In our polarized society, civility and respect have given way to outrage and hyperbole, corroding our national cohesiveness and shaking confidence in our democratic institutions.

Reflecting on President George H.W. Bush, I was moved by his integrity, humility, civility, and respect. It made me contemplate what it means to be a good person. How could I leave my community better than I found it?  How could I uplift the less fortunate and alleviate their suffering? How could I be a better neighbor?

In our polarized society, civility and respect have given way to outrage and hyperbole, corroding our national cohesiveness and shaking confidence in our democratic institutions.

According to the Democracy Project, a research project of the George W. Bush Institute, Penn Biden Center, and Freedom House, there is significant concern about the future of American democracy; more than half of respondents viewed our system as weak, while 68 percent believed that it will get weaker. Examining some of the specific concerns Americans have about our democracy “Racism and Discrimination” and “Inability of the government to get anything done” ranked high.  Both are connected to the commonplace dehumanization of opponents and “others” we see so often today. 

Additionally, a 2017 report on American political values found nearly half of all Republicans and Democrats view the opposing party “very unfavorably.” That number has jumped almost 30 percent since the early 1990s.

And so, the virtues of President George H.W. Bush eulogized so eloquently speak to a quality of character that is vital to bridging the divides of today’s society.  We can’t move forward if irrational contempt for our opponents prevents us from finding common ground on improving our nation.

I’m optimistic we can reverse course, but it will take a concerted effort. There’s good news on this front. Returning to the Democracy Project’s findings, large majorities of Americans believed democracy is important and “the tone of politics in Washington” and “political and partisan polarization” are worsening. 

While we will never agree on everything, we must reach a place where we can empathize, disagree civilly, and find avenues of compromise. There are some concrete examples that illustrate what I mean.

Take the Bush Institute’s leadership programs, on the cutting edge of uniting diverse participants to accomplish good in the world.  These programs create tangible models of how people who disagree can work together, forge partnerships, and even create life-long friendships.

Consider also the recent drama between Saturday Night Live (SNL) comic Pete Davidson and congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.  Following an insensitive remark by Davidson about Crenshaw (the former Navy SEAL wears an eyepatch after an IED blast damaged his eye) and by implication the sacrifice of our veterans, Crenshaw appeared on SNL to receive a live apology. While the two engaged in some good-natured ribbing, the encounter ended with forgiveness and a broader call for mutual respect. Crenshaw later wrote an op-ed appealing to the better angels of our nature on civil discourse, “How, then, do we live together in this world of differing ideas? For starters, let’s agree that the ideas are fair game. If you think my idea is awful, you should say as much. But there is a difference between attacking an idea and attacking the person behind that idea.”

Here’s another example. In remembering the life of President George H.W. Bush, much was made of the handwritten note he left in the Oval Office for incoming President Bill Clinton.  In the note, President Bush put aside personal disappointment to support the man who defeated him, “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. “

Afterward, the former rivals forged a life-long friendship that saw them lead relief efforts after a 2004 tsunami devastated Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina. What a fantastic reminder to us all that we can be gracious in defeat and unite for causes larger than ourselves.  Sometimes it all starts with a single act of civility.

Even something as small as giving a piece of candy to someone you may not agree with politically might pave the way to a friendship.

Such acts are by no means silver bullets against the rancor that divides us, but they serve as foundations upon which we can build more constructive and empathetic political dialogue.  Otherwise, nothing changes and our fissures will expand and continue to be exploited by external forces such as Russia and China.

So, recognize the humanity of your fellow citizens. Take a stand against polarization by empathizing with someone whom you disagree. Discuss your differences civilly. Maybe even find some unexpected common ground. And should composure start to fail you, repeat President George H.W. Bush’s code:

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Don’t blame people
  3. Be strong
  4. Do your best
  5. Try hard
  6. Stay the course