Herbst: Incivility a constant in American political life

Mansfield — The U.S. Senate race between Linda McMahon and Christopher Murphy has featured plenty of attack ads and countercharges, but at least no one has been hit with a cane.

There were plenty of heated exchanges during the 5th Congressional District primary campaigns earlier this summer, but no one was labeled a “monster” or the “village idiot.”

And while there are some dangers to the incivility that permeates politics throughout the United States, it hasn’t hit an all-time low as some pundits and or voters claim, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said Tuesday during a speech in Mansfield.

Susan Herbst

Susan Herbst

Herbst, an expert on political discourse, whose book, “Rude Democracy,” was published last year by Temple University Press, also said Americans can work to keep political battling from reaching unhealthy levels, both through their schools and their personal habits.

“Incivility has always been a constant in American life,” Herbst told a crowd of nearly 150 gathered at the Mansfield Public Library, noting that it dates back to the Founding Fathers, who pulled no punches. “We have always fought with each other.”

Citing historian David McCullough, Herbst noted that Alexander Hamilton publicly berated John Adams, the nation’s second president, for his egotism, eccentric tendencies, temper and allegations of illegitimate children.

In the mid-19th century, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase “tyranny of the majority” to describe the American willingness to crush the minority opinion with intimidation.

“We silenced each other,” Herbst said.

And as the politics of sectionalism in the 1850s drove the United States toward the Civil War, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks viciously beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor after the latter referred to Brooks’ relative, Sen. Andrew Butler, as a pimp trying to introduce the whore of slavery to Kansas.

“That was the rock-bottom,” Herbst said. “It really makes today look like child’s play.”

Herbst, who has a doctorate in communications and has lectured across the country on political discourse, added that in the 19th century “there were bench-clearing brawls in the House and Senate.”

By the 20th century, though the violence was toned down, critics would label Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “a socialist,” Ronald Reagan as “a monster” and George W. Bush as “the village idiot,” she said.

While not condoning the violence and scandalous gossip that has crept into political races from time to time, Herbst said a degree of political friction isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“When did we get so concerned about people’s feelings?” she said. “Are we a culture of delicate flowers?”

Voters also need to accept some responsibility for the presence of political incivility, given that much of the electorate responds positively to it — or at least to a certain degree of friction.

“Usually when something stays around for a long time, there’s something attractive about it,” she said, adding that “the reason you see so much negative advertising today is because it works.”

Political incivility can be attractive because it appears to boil complex and nuanced policy issues into two distinct and opposing counter-arguments, she said.

Citing Dick Morris, a former adviser to President Clinton who became a political commentator, Herbst said some voters can be like juries waiting for a prosecutor to tear a defendant apart, to present a clear and easy-to-discern case.

And Morris argues, she added, that voters also trust their internal “baloney detectors” to warn which attacks are based in truth, and which are founded on lies.

Still, political attacks can go too far, and have negative effects on the health of democracy.

Herbst, who was executive vice chancellor of the university system of Georgia before arriving at UConn in December 2010, said she participated in a student survey at her last post that found many students now face “profound discomfort” discussing politics and have “a general fear of a political argument.”

And while the news media didn’t invent political incivility, it has learned how to enhance it through so many different venues to the point where it becomes debilitating. “It kind of narcotizes people from political action,” she said.

And as communications expand, politicians or even voters who might have a civil disagreement at a public meeting now have the option of blasting away at each other on the Internet, shielded from the face-to-face confrontation that might encourage a more temperate debate.

Schools can fight this trend toward political apathy among young adults by teaching debating skills, and how to argue effectively and civilly, Herbst said. “America does not know how to argue in a civil, a productive fashion.”

She noted that when radio was a more dominant mode of providing political news, it helped develop a “culture of listening” among American voters — a skill that can be taught even if radio no longer is a primary means of communications.

But voters also have to recognize that, to some extent, they find themselves confronted with political incivility — instigated by politicians or by the news media — because the electorate responds to it.

“We’re the ones who watch that TV or don’t,” she said. “And we do watch it.”