It’s Getting Much Harder To Have A Civil Talk

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

We were once told that you had to get the reader to agree with you three times before he or she would be willing to read the rest of what you had written. You had to create common ground to build mutual respect for a civil conversation. As a country, it appears our common ground is disappearing.

Political conversation in America is becoming more difficult. It doesn’t mater whether that conversation is with friends and family, acquaintances we meet from time to time, or a group of strangers.

Based on a recent survey by the Pew Research Center those conversations are becoming stressful “experiences that they prefer to avoid.” Pew also found that “large majorities say the tone and nature of political debate in the United States has become more negative in recent years – as well as less respectful, less fact-based and less substantive.”

Some who are strong supporters of the president find it uncomfortable to be sitting in a group where those around them begin discussing Trump and his latest comments or political moves. We don’t need Pew to tell us this through a survey. We’ve seen it play out numerous times in our own community. They will ask that we not talk about politics. Sometimes the request is polite; other times there is considerable agitation behind it.

Trump can leave even his supporters wondering about the comments he makes at times. Among all people in the survey Pew found: 76 percent feel concerned about the comments he makes, 70 percent feel confused, 69 percent embarrassed and 67 percent exhausted. Another 54 percent say they find his comments sometimes entertaining.

It doesn’t help these confused, concerned, embarrassed and exhausted people that Trump has made close 11,000 flat out wrong, misleading, exaggerated or made up statements in his 887 days in office as of June 25.

Every day conversations with friends and family are far more sensitive and tense than they used to be if they touch on Trump and his politics. Family members and longtime friends get into heated debates on social media, and may end up de-friending each other.

Conversations about politics are becoming more rare with people we don’t know well as people try avoid the animosity and conflict it can bring. They would rather stick to the weather and sports, according to Pew, and even talk religion – but not politics.

Among those surveyed for the report, our president was given as the major reason for the uneasy and combative state of our political discourse these days.

“A 55% majority says Trump has changed the tone and nature of political debate in this country for the worse; fewer than half as many (24%) say he has changed it for the better, while 20% say he has had little impact,” Pew reports.

There is strong agreement that “heated or aggressive” rhetoric by political leaders aimed at specific groups of people (immigrants and the press for example) is dangerous and could lead to violence against them. However, Pew found that this concern was deeper among Democrats and those who lean toward the party, than those who identify as Republican or lean that way.

Unsurprisingly, the Pew study found that people think it is important that their party be treated with respect by the opposing party. However, and perhaps also not surprising, these same people are less concerned about how they treat the other party.

Despite these findings about American’s feelings about the state of political discourse today, Trump enjoys strong support within the Republican Party. His approval ratings are generally around the high 80s within the party.

However, Trump is the first president to have never gained at least 50 percent approval from citizens. He is also far behind the national support other Republican presidents had achieved by  June of their third year in office.  Trump’s approval rating average hovers around 40 percent and was at 43 percent in the most recent Gallup survey.

At the same point in their presidencies, George W. Bush was at 63 percent, George H.W. Bush at 72 percent, Ronald Reagan at 45 percent, Richard Nixon at 48 percent and Dwight Eisenhower at 69 percent, according to Gallup.

When it comes to insulting, ridiculing, and slandering members of the opposing party, Pew finds that “Democrats more than Republicans find some insults and slurs are never acceptable.”

Nearly 60 percent of Democrats say such comments aren’t acceptable in our political discourse while just 40 percent of Republicans feel this way. Seventy percent of Democrats say it isn’t right to call the opponent stupid, but only 51 percent of Republicans say it is wrong. Forty-two percent of Democrats say you shouldn’t call an opponent “evil,” however, only 26 percent of Republicans say that would be wrong. “Even when it comes to shouting over an opponent or insulting an opponent’s appearance, Republicans register less objection than do Democrats,” Pew found.

Pews’ survey results don’t bode well for the conversations that are going to become increasingly unavoidable in the coming months as the presidential political campaigns, and debates, get  underway. The campaigns run by the official political parties will be relatively civil, but we know that the campaign rhetoric spewed by the independent organizations pushing one candidate or the other are going to be downright dirty and disgusting.

This worries us because it has the effect of turning off America’s voters and having them drop out of our electoral process. It also makes voters less informed about facts and our politics even more emotionally charged.

We once enjoyed debating politics with our friends and family, but not so much any more. These days we tend to ask people to explain why they believe the way they do. Generally, they can give a short generic answer, but as we dig deeper we find a relatively shallow understanding of issues with emotion and personality more of a driver of their views than reason.

However, understanding why lies beneath a person’s beliefs is essential to have a conversation about politics, to accepting where they come from on issues, and then having a more civil conversation.

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