Cam­paign’s dis­dain for ci­vil­ity could leave last­ing dam­age

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - NATION+WORLD - By Adam Geller AP Na­tional Writer

When a South Carolina con­gress­man shouted “You lie!” dur­ing a speech by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2009, House members re­buked him for vi­o­lat­ing norms of ci­vil­ity. Af­ter this year’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, the idea that peo­ple were once trou­bled by the out­burst seems al­most quaint.

Ci­vil­ity in pol­i­tics has been de­clin­ing for years, both a cause and symp­tom of a chang­ing cul­ture where anony­mous ver­bal as­saults are fired freely across the in­ter­net, and ca­ble TV rou­tinely broad­casts words once banned from the air­waves. But Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial run took name­call­ing and mock­ery — things that vot­ers long said they de­tested in their can­di­dates — and nor­mal­ized them into a win­ning po­lit­i­cal strat­egy.

Now Trump, the pres­i­dent-elect, is call­ing for unity in words that draw at­ten­tion pre­cisely be­cause they sound so un­like Trump, the can­di­date. But many ques­tion whether it is pos­si­ble to re­verse the cam­paign’s dam­age to po­lit­i­cal dis­course and its rip­ples out to the way Amer­i­cans speak to and about each other.

“There’s plenty of blame to go around on this sub­ject, but I think in this par­tic­u­lar elec­tion that an em­brace of Don­ald Trump was an em­brace of in­ci­vil­ity and vul­gar­ity and in­sults and bul­ly­ing, and un­for­tu­nately we saw very lit­tle pub­lic re­pu­di­a­tion of that from any Trump sup­port­ers,” said Mark DeMoss, an At­lanta pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tive and con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can whose clients are mostly Chris­tian re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions.

DeMoss, who aban­doned a cam­paign called the Ci­vil­ity Project in early 2011 af­ter only three members of Congress would sign a pledge to act re­spect­fully, watched the degra­da­tion of po­lit­i­cal speech for years. Then Trump’s cam­paign, he and other long­time ob­servers say, stomped well past what was thought to be ac­cept­able.

“We can all point to in­ci­dents in cam­paigns across history, but I think this one prob­a­bly does rep­re­sent a new place in terms of in­ci­vil­ity,” said James Mullen, pres­i­dent of Al­legheny Col­lege in Meadville, Penn­syl­va­nia, which awards a prize each year for ci­vil­ity in pub­lic life.

“What wor­ries me the most is we’re be­com­ing al­most numb,” Mullen said.

When Al­legheny — which first polled Amer­i­cans about po­lit­i­cal ci­vil­ity in 2010 — did so again in Oc­to­ber, re­searchers noted a “dis­turb­ing” de­cline in those re­ject­ing in­sults in pol­i­tics. The num­ber who dis­ap­prove of po­lit­i­cal com­ments about some­one’s race or eth­nic­ity de­clined from 89 per­cent to 69 per­cent. The num­ber who said it was un­ac­cept­able to shout over a de­bate op­po­nent fell from 86 per­cent to 65 per­cent.

Many ob­servers blame Trump, who called Mex­i­can im­mi­grants “rapists,” tarred his ad­ver­saries as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hil­lary” and com­plained that a TV jour­nal­ist’s dogged ques­tion­ing was just a sign she had “blood com­ing out of her wher­ever.” He said all of those things, not on long-for­got­ten tapes, but in front of mil­lions of vot­ers.

At Trump’s ral­lies, sup­port­ers fol­lowed suit, chant­ing “Lock Her Up!” about Clin­ton and wear­ing T-shirts with the slo­gan, “Trump That Bitch!”

In some ways, Trump’s rhetoric is an out­growth of cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal shifts.

A gen­er­a­tion be­fore the in­ter­net, po­lit­i­cal back­ers were leav­ing fliers at­tack­ing ri­vals on vot­ers’ wind­shields in the dark and blan­ket­ing neigh­bor­hoods with anony­mous di­rect mail­ings. So­cial me­dia made it pos­si­ble for or­di­nary peo­ple to dis­par­age po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies widely with no risk, say­ing things they might pre­vi­ously have told only their close friends.

“Into that world comes a can­di­date who uses Twitter as a pri­mary mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” said Kath­leen Hall Jamieson, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia who stud­ies po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “He lives in a world in which this stuff is be­ing traf­ficked back and forth, and that nor­mal­izes this kind of dis­course for you as a can­di­date.”

But with their words, Trump, Clin­ton and other politi­cians set the tone for a much larger con­ver­sa­tion.

Nearly 2,000 teach­ers sur­veyed by the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter this spring re­ported that the cam­paign’s scorch­ing words were hav­ing a “pro­foundly neg­a­tive im­pact” on their stu­dents. More than half said they had seen an in­crease in bul­ly­ing, ha­rass­ment and in­tim­i­da­tion of stu­dents whose race, re­li­gion or na­tion­al­ity had been tar­geted by po­lit­i­cal rhetoric.

The sur­vey did not iden­tify any can­di­dates. But teach­ers sin­gled out Trump in more than 1,000 com­ments, while fewer than 200 com­bined named Clin­ton, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, or Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders.

In re­cent years, teach­ers mind­ful of bul­ly­ing and taunts on so­cial me­dia have worked to make schools places of mu­tual re­spect, said Mau­reen Costello, di­rec­tor of the SPLC’s Teach­ing Tol­er­ance project.

“What made this year re­ally dif­fer­ent is that it broke through that pro­tec­tive moat,” Costello said. The po­lit­i­cal rhetoric was “so ubiq­ui­tous and so sat­u­rated the cul­ture that you couldn’t keep it out of schools. Kids are sponges.”

When Beth Fer­ris, a mid­dle school teacher in Yucca Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, told stu­dents on Elec­tion Day that history would be made one way or the other, one of her stu­dents said, “Yeah, she (Clin­ton) should be in jail!” At a nearby high school, van­dals painted “Trump 2016,” on a wall and cov­ered the word “Girls” on a bath­room door with a vul­gar­ity.

“I think it’s go­ing to get worse be­fore it gets bet­ter,” Fer­ris said.

On the day af­ter the elec­tion, teacher Dee Burek said fifth and sixth graders in her Al­len­town, New Jersey, mid­dle school asked how Trump had be­come the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee. She re­called his in­sults of op­po­nents in de­bates and how they stuck. “The kids just kind of looked at me and said, ‘But that doesn’t make any sense. That’s bul­ly­ing,’” she said. “If these mid­dle school­ers can see that, I think there’s hope.”

Adults, who heard the can­di­dates out and voted, have con­flicted feel­ings.

“There were some things that were said about Hil­lary, that she should just go to jail and she should be hung, they make it sound so — it can’t be that bad,” said By­ron Dop­kins, an accountant in River Falls, Wis­con­sin, who voted for Trump. “What makes it worse (for) the pub­lic is that we can’t have con­ver­sa­tions with friends who are on the other side of the aisle with­out it get­ting nasty.”

Still, Dop­kins said one of the rea­sons he voted for Trump is that he is a “straight talker.”

But that talk feeds a pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion that leaves Melinda St. Clair, an Epis­co­pal priest in Billings, Mon­tana, who voted for Clin­ton, deeply trou­bled.

“I don’t use the term ‘civil dis­course.’ I don’t think there is any,” St. Clair said.

“I don’t think we’re lis­ten­ing to God. I don’t think we’re lis­ten­ing to each other. I think we’re just hear­ing what makes us feel good at the mo­ment and shout­ing it at the top of our lungs.”

EVAN VUCCI — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sup­port­ers of Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump, one hold­ing a sign that reads, “LOCK HER UP,” cheer dur­ing a cam­paign rally in Lees­burg, Va., on Mon­day.

MATTHEW HINTON/THE AD­VO­CATE VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A woman who iden­ti­fied her­self as J. Stroh sets fire to an ef­figy of Don­ald Trump, as a man who iden­ti­fied him­self as Blue Vel­vet blows on the flames, dur­ing an anti-Trump protest at Lee Cir­cle in New Or­leans on Wed­nes­day.

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