Civility: Political costs of incivility

Part Two: While this year's political contests seemed especially bitter because personal attacks seemed to outnumber discussions of issues, history suggests that false accusations have been part of American political contests since the early 1800s. The challenge for both parties to work together may be more difficult than previously because of the recent negative campaigns, and the political culture of aggression and hostility that values winning at any cost risks leaving important legislation undone.

The problems with political incivility:

•Change of party control may elicit more incivility, which translates into lack of restraint in listening to differences of opinion. The former majority party can be angry at loss of control, and the current majority party may rush into passing legislation. Incivility creates an inability to govern effectively.

•House rules forbid engaging in personality debates and personal criticism of the Speaker of the House. Both the Senate and House have rules governing behavior on the floor, i.e. talking through the Chair vs. directly at each other as "the gentleman/ lady from California.

•Mean-spirited partisanship and behind-the-door non-transparent transactions have replaced compromise, unity and friendship.

•Blame, shame, criticism, disrespect, lack of restraint and personal attacks against anyone who disagrees exacerbate hostile tension.

The House of Representatives had rules on decorum and debate that are rooted, in part, on a manual written by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. These rules exist in order to prevent potential personal clashes. If there were violations, and there certainly were, members would be censured. Unacceptable behavior included indecent language, which was considered unmannerly or uncivil.

Campaigns should be about defining broad goals, discussion of problems, listening and compromising with different political views. Because politicians often have strong egos and a need for power, these goals can be lost.

A willingness to be open to the opinions of others, patience, tolerance and sharing credit for the ideas of others can reduce the friction among strong-minded egos. Aggression is getting what you want with no regard for others. Assertiveness is getting what you want with consideration for others.

A formula for political success may involve acknowledging the strengths of participants, respect for each other, minimizing a sense of entitlement and political tactics, verbal and active restraint, and tactfulness. A prime necessity for success is appreciation and practice of positive relationship skills.

This year saw a 50-city "American Civility Tour" headlined by Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa. This states that members of Congress and the White House must cease bickering and focus on big issues, tax cuts, and approval of the budget, among other issues. Without this civility, political parties are polarized and the political system may become dysfunctional.

In May 2009, Civility Project letters were sent to 535 members of Congress and 50 governors with a simple request: Sign a pledge to stay civil. Only two have signed and returned the pledge.

I may be dreaming, but I look forward to the day that civility becomes the norm, rather than the exception, for our politicians.

DIANA OLSON, MA AICI CIP, is an etiquette & civility specialist/image stylist. Contact her at (626) 584-9761 or or

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