The Common Good

Grading Civility: 75 Percent Give the United States a C, D, or F

President Obama spent 4 percent of his State of the Union addressing partisanship, civility, and how we can all actually "work together tomorrow." According to the most comprehensive data yet on "American Views of Civility," released yesterday by the Public Religion Research Institute, 75 percent of Americans would give the 'moral state of the union' a grade of C, D, or F. And about half of that 75 percent declare that 'the moral state of the union' deserves a grade of a D or F. If we were all in school and receiving grades of D or F, 37 percent of the time, and Cs the other 38 percent, we would quickly flunk out.

But if we tried to grade ourselves on civility, we couldn't do it. As the polls show, when it comes to questions of civility, Americans are in the midst of a blaming game. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, conservatives, and liberals, as well as members of different Christian denominations, disagree as to who is most responsible for the violent rhetoric in American politics. We are grading ourselves and our counterparts differently, accusing the opposite side for being the more uncivil one, but we are all at fault.

Here are some highlights from the PPRI data on "American Views of Civility":

  • 62 percent of Democrats report that Republicans more often use "violent rhetoric." 45 percent of Republicans say that Democrats are more likely to do so.
  • 31 percent of Independents say Republicans more often use "violent images or language." 23 percent say that Democrats are more likely to do so and 24 percent claim that both parties equally engage in violent rhetoric.
  • When the labels liberal and conservative are used instead of party names, Americans 33 percent say liberals use violent language more often than conservatives. 27 percent say the contrary.
  • When asked which political party is more likely to use violent rhetoric, Republicans were twice as likely to refuse to answer the question.
  • 50 percent of conservatives say that liberals are most likely to engage in violent rhetoric. 42 percent of liberals say conservatives are most likely to do so.
  • 33 percent of political moderates say conservatives more often use violent rhetoric than liberals. 30 percent claim the opposite.
  • Different Christian denominations also differ in which party they believe is more likely to engage in uncivil discourse. White Evangelical Protestants are the only religious group who say Democrats more often use violent rhetoric than Republicans (35 percent vs. 17 percent). White Mainline Protestants say both parties engage in violent rhetoric equally, while white Catholics, minority Christians, and those unaffiliated are more likely to blame Republicans.
  • 53 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans say the "lack of civility is a very serious problem." 49 percent of Americans say that the lack of "civil or respectful discourse in our political system is a very or somewhat serious problem."

So, given this data, do I think President Obama should have spent more than 4 percent of his time last night discussing the 'moral state of the union'? Yes. The President said it himself: "We will move forward together, or not at all

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