South Dakota News Watch’s fourth report on its July Mason-Dixon polling results is a spectacular exercise in not talking about the elephants in the room. In discussing the opinion of 79% of respondents that civility has declined over the last five years, Bart Pfankuch manages to avoid making a single mention of the one of the primary causes of that perceived lack of civility: the daily and highly visible practice and affirmation of incivility by Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican fanatics.
Reporter Bart Pfankuch prefers instead to give former Senator Larry Pressler, who in demeanor represents the anti-Trump, time to blame reporters for incivility:
Pressler said the news media has exacerbated the incivility in politics because reporters often tend to seek out conflict to report on, placing lawmakers in a position where any perceived misstep is highlighted or overanalyzed. Working with members of an opposing political party or agreeing across the aisle is now seen as weakness or a lack of conviction, whereas in the past the ability to work in a bipartisan fashion was celebrated, Pressler said.
“Each party is afraid to socialize with the other…so you’re constantly on guard when you’re around members of the other party, and that’s really unfortunate,” he said [Bart Pfankuch, “As 2022 Election Approaches, Vast Majority of South Dakota Voters See Civility Declining in America,” South Dakota News Watch, 2022.09.21].
Former USD prof Matthew Moen blames “both sides”:
“Compromise is really the lifeblood of how the American system is structured, and compromise and conciliation are now seen as vices and not virtues by many partisans on both sides,” he said.
A lack of collegiality in Congress may also be due to fundamental changes in how lawmakers behave, Moen said, as they spend less time in Washington, less time working together as a group, with more time and energy devoted to fundraising or pushing political agendas not tied to real issues and problems.
“What we all feel uneasy about is that the lines are shifting, and the boundaries are moving partly because the political leadership is willing to move them with an eye toward national public policies and national politics rather than with an eye toward solving intractable public policy problems with their colleagues,” he said [Pfankuch, 2022.09.21].
Banker Jason Herrboldt says leaders need to model civility:
“The burden of leadership is very real, and we as leaders need to raise the bar on ourselves because people are listening,” he said. “It should be a wake-up call and lead us to do more and to raise the bar on how we are interacting with each other, because people are always paying attention and taking cues from leaders” [Pfankuch, 2022.09.21].
But the entire article namby-pams around the obvious and specific conclusion of Herrboldt’s advice that indicts the limp both-sidesism of Moen’s assessment: Republicans picked as their leader Donald Trump, a man who throughout his campaign and his time in the White House and to this day persists in modeling the most uncivil comments imaginable and exhorting others to uncivil behavior. His Republican followers ape his incivility to the point of threatening their own Republican Senator with armed insurrection.
Sure, reporters may lean toward conflict and horserace stories over policy analysis. Congress critters son’t spend enough time living and working with each other in Washington (or, as Pressler mentions, flying home sitting next to colleagues from the other party) to break down barriers and promote civil, practical conversations. And yes, leaders in all organizations have an obligation to model the civil behavior that greases the gears of civilization.
But discussing a perceived decline in civility in America without discussing the chief exemplar of uncivil behavior, Donald Trump, and his millions of F-bomb-flag-waving Republican minions is like talking about monkeypox and not talking about anonymous sex with multiple partners.