WESTERVILLE, Ohio – “I don’t even know my country anymore,” said Karen McCurdy, a registered Democrat living in the northeast Columbus suburb of Westerville.
“I used to tune in but now I tune out,” complained Anne Berkal, a registered Republican who lives down the street. “The nastiness, just, I don’t think it sets a good example for how people treat each other.”
“I’m just tired of the way people are behaving right now,” said Erin Johnson, another neighbor living on Otterbein University’s quiet campus who is also a registered Democrat.
The complaints about the tone of American public discourse come as the nation is seeing historic levels of polarization not seen since the Civil War.
Some blamed President Donald Trump, others blamed Democrats, but one thing that interviews with more than a dozen Ohio voters illustrated was a wide-range disgust in the lack of common courtesy portrayed in the modern political environment.
Anderson Cooper ended Tuesday night’s Democratic debate on the university’s campus with a question on civility, referencing the recent criticisms lodged at Ellen DeGeneres for attending an NFL game with Republican former President George W. Bush.
“Last week, Ellen DeGeneres was criticized after she and former President George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game,” Cooper explained. “Ellen defended their friendship, saying we’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different.”
“So in that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
Some candidates on stage touted personal relationships with friends at home while others spoke about their close friendships forged with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. According to a variety of vote-rating organizations, McCain’s voting record was often described as a “centrist,” “moderate,” and “maverick,” and he was known for publicly contradicting his party.
“I miss him every day,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota before reflecting on a visit to the late senator on his deathbed. “He pointed to some words in his book, because he could hardly talk. And the words say this: ‘There is nothing more liberating in life than fighting for a cause larger than yourself.’ That’s what we’re doing right now.”
“We have to remember that our job is to not just change policy, but to change the tone in our politics, to look up from our phones, to look at each other, to start talking to each other,” Klobuchar said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden shared a similar story.
“On his deathbed, he asked me to do his eulogy,” Biden said. “He was a great man of principle. He was honorable… That’s the reason why I’m running. We have to restore the soul of this country.”
It was a sobering moment in a political environment saturated with contempt, capping off a policy-focused evening with a question at the heart of the cultural crisis plaguing American discourse.
A 2016 poll from the Pew Research Center shows 55 percent of Democrats reporting they had a “very unfavorable” view of Republicans while 58 percent of Republicans felt the same of Democrats. Another Pew survey published in July corroborates what Ohio voters felt with 85 percent of American adults believing that the “tone and nature” of our political discourse has become more negative in recent years.
More troubling, the deterioration of civility in American politics has led to the destruction of meaningful relationships essential to a healthy society. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 15 percent, or one in six Americans, reported that they had stopped talking to either a close friend or family member over the result of the 2016 presidential election.
McCurdy said that while she believes none of her neighbors or friends hate her for her liberal views, the lack of civility in today’s political discourse is a major concern deepening divisions in an already divided country.
“In general, the people that I encounter through my work, through my neighborhood, through my child’s school, I think even if we had different views I don’t think they hate me because of them,” McCurdy said, but added that in Trump country an hour away, politics is a touchy subject with family she says posts “appalling content” on social media.
Trump is often blamed for furthering the erosion of civil dialogue. The president’s absence on the issue creates an opportunity for Democrats to be the “nice” party to prop up its far-left candidates with few real policy differences to portray themselves as more likeable. At his rallies, Trump has even promised to pay the legal fees of attendees who beat up protesters.
Democrats, on the other hand, remain far from innocent. Biden once remarked to a Florida audience last year that if they were in high school together, Biden would take Trump “behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” Hillary Clinton also did Democrats no favors by branding Trump’s supporters as “deplorable.”
Some Democratic supporters have perpetuated the problem by attacking Trump supporters in recent rallies. Just last week, protestors assaulted attendees of a Trump rally in Minneapolis, a scene becoming far too common as American civility continues to decline.
.@AlphaNewsMN captures moment when a man in a "I Stand with Ilhan Omar" shirt chokes a man who tried to retrieve his stolen MAGA hat. Other antifa people then kick & punch him. He was trying to leave the area after the Trump rally in Minneapolis last week. https://t.co/iEugKxiMoA pic.twitter.com/XDMfVBrZam
— Andy Ngô 🏳️🌈 (@MrAndyNgo) October 16, 2019
A man in a blue jacket seemed to be leaving the Trump rally by himself when he was spotted by a protester who yelled: “There’s a Nazi over here!” A group of protesters then attacked the man, slapping and pushing him. He finally ran away. pic.twitter.com/jzYaWgca9g
— Jenna Johnson (@wpjenna) October 11, 2019
Going forward, Democrats would be wise to pursue a message of unity and encourage supporters to do the same. Aggressive calls for impeaching Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Trump, however, as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii warned in Tuesday’s debate, are only likely to sow further division.