Political debate has always involved passion that can lead to anger and sometimes acrimony. That comes with the nature of conversation about important issues.
However, too often debate becomes about the personalities behind an idea and not the idea itself. Lately a higher level of rudeness and the combination of sarcasm and cynicism we all know as “snarkiness” has gradually moved in and planted itself, and like a bad neighbor, it’s been whooping it up next door through our use of the Internet and, particularly, social media. A troubling number of legislators and political employees combine snarkiness and personal vindictiveness to sound like pundits and attack dogs rather than leaders and public servants.
To start a thread of conversation about political civility, we launched Keep It Civil MN through a Facebook page and the Twitter hashtag #KeepItCivilMN in mid-March. Our intent is not to police free speech or morality. As Susan Herbst states in her book “Rude Democracy,” “tying ourselves up in knots about what is right or wrong, civil or uncivil, is far less useful than educating Americans about how to debate and develop the thick skin that strong democratic debate demands.” However, we do intend to create spaces where people can express their concerns and call for accountability. We hope to encourage a civil debate about civil debate and provide a reminder that a productive democracy is built on the constructive exchange of ideas.
Snarkiness works because its mixture of humor and sourness make us simultaneously laugh and cringe. We think maybe we shouldn’t like it. But we do, sort of. Like all crude humor though, snarkiness is only funny for so long. Especially while grown-ups are talking. And public policy is grown-up talk. One major focus of Keep It Civil MN is to remind legislators that they are in office on the people’s behalf and are expected to work hard in our best interest while conducting themselves and their staffers in an appropriate and civil manner, including on social media.
An inspiration for our project was an indication among our peers within the University of Minnesota Humphrey School’s Policy Fellows Program that able people are not engaging in the political discourse necessary for a healthy democracy, which relies on the voices of many, not a few. We asked ourselves and a few others why people might feel disconnected from politics and civil discourse. We saw that a recent St. Cloud State University study of students found that they are less likely to engage in politics due to the perception of incivility and the feeling that their voices are not heard. Many, we believe, avoid political discussions with people with different viewpoints, even family members, both in person and on social media for fear of alienation or even becoming personal targets. We hope to spread a little optimism and encourage individuals to look past the rampant rancor and noxious debate on social media and in the press and to engage or re-engage in the process of self-government.
To gauge and compare attitudes toward incivility, we have posted a link to a “Keep It Civil Survey” at the top of our Keep It Civil MN page on Facebook and are inviting all Minnesotans and Minnesota legislators to take it. Results should show generally whether views on political bickering are the same or different between citizens and their elected state officials.
Another of our goals is to help bridge the gaps that keep elected officials artificially separated — gaps caused by mistrust, suspicion and simple lack of understanding about each other and each other’s legitimate viewpoints. Through www.keepitcivilmn.org, Minnesota legislators are invited to be paired with a colleague from another party and/or district to undertake five tasks together from a list of 10 and be recognized for completing the “Keep It Civil Challenge.” Task No. 1 for each participant will be to post his or her commitment to the guiding principles of Keep It Civil MN, which can be found at the website and on the Facebook page.
Legislators and candidates for office seem to be stuck in a whirlpool of excessive incivility that we believe risks turning people off from participating in government. If citizens are in charge in a democracy, it is up to them to help drain the tub of negativity. Voting for the better candidate is one way to do this, but each of us can do more by joining the discussion.
“Keep It Civil MN” is a group project by Amy Aho, Bill Black, Ben Gerber, Cari Ness Nesje and David Wentzel as part of their Humphrey Policy Fellows Program based at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.