Although we should perhaps count ourselves fortunate that violence no longer breaks out on the Senate floor (a la the infamous Sumner-Brooks caning incident of 1856), a recent editorial for the Christian Science Monitor points out the “vitriolic rhetoric” that appears to have become the norm in contemporary political discourse.
Case in point: last night’s debate, when Newt Gingrich suggested that Rep. Barney Frank and former senator Chris Dodd should be thrown in jail. Last weekend, prominent evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress also upped the ante for contentious remarks when he insinuated, while introducing (and endorsing) Rick Perry, that Mitt Romney was not a Christian. Perry says that he will not comply with Romney’s request to disavow Jeffress.
The editorial references one of PRRI’s findings about Americans’ views on civility and respect within political discourse: that 80% of Americans say a “lack of civil or respectful discourse in our political system” is a serious problem. The tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a number of innocent bystanders last winter galvanized Americans’ opinion around the issue of civility, although even before the Arizona shootings, most Americans saw a lack of civility as a serious problem in our nation’s politics.
A PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll conducted in the days after the 2010 election revealed that Americans (and especially Democrats) believed that midterm election had been more caustic and discordant than most:
- Only 1-in-5 (21%) Americans agreed that national political leaders work well together to get things done despite differences.
- Four-in-ten (41%) believed that the 2010 election was more negative, compared to past elections.
- Nearly 6-in-10 (59%) said that the nation was more political divided than in the past.
- Democrats were more likely than Republicans (53% compared to 41%) to say the lack of civility was a very serious problem.
After the shootings in January, a slim majority of Americans (51%) said that harsh rhetoric contributed in some fashion to the targeting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, while 4-in-10 said it played no role at all. Later that month, a PRRI Religion and Politics Tracking Poll revealed that significantly more Americans said that Republicans (35%) are more likely than Democrats (23%) to use violent images or language in political debates.
The recent divisive comments may end up helping current GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, who called for an end to “poisonous” rhetoric in his speech to the Values Voter Summit on Saturday. Romney’s attacks are, instead, pointed at President Barack Obama, who he has called a “nice guy” who is simply “in over his head.” If Americans are indeed fed up with “uncivil” political rhetoric, Romney’s strategy (if he sticks with it) could be quite effective.