Perspectives on Politics

Book Reviews: American Politics

Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics. By Susan Herbst . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. 216p. $24.95.

Tim Groeling

University of California at Los Angeles

In this thought-provoking text, Susan Herbst tackles the role of civility in public discourse. Many have lamented the seeming explosion of hostility and incivility in American politics. However, the author is not interested in arguing whether civility has declined (or risen). Instead, she examines how citizens and politicians can strategically use both civility and incivility as tools to advance their goals.

Herbst explicitly contrasts her “strategic tool” approach to civility to more cultural or normative views. She argues that rather than viewing civility as a static, culturally driven absolute, it should be viewed as more fluid, contextual, and idiosyncratic, particularly in the context of a new media environment in which “communicators are utilizing, playing with, and transforming civility and incivility daily, shaping American political discourse as a result” (p. 9). A key notion in Herbst's analysis is that rather than privileging particular behavior labeled as civil and decrying incivility, both should be thought of as valid rhetorical tools. Indeed, she argues that elements of modern politics “would be difficult to parse and understand if we did not think about civility and incivility as weapons” (p. 9). Therefore, she believes that efforts to reduce incivility in politics are misguided, calling instead for Americans to be educated “about how to debate and develop the thick skin that strong democratic debate demands” (p. 10).

For Herbst, in contrast to other writers on civility who stress character, virtue, manners, or self-control, civility is fundamentally communicative in nature. It requires arguing, listening, and respect for the deliberative process. It also entails “feeling good while we interact with others” (p. 10), whether that interaction takes place face-to-face or through media. She stresses that ultimately, we should view civility as a “process populated by agents with varying goals” (p. 21), not as a goal.

After reviewing some historical and contemporary views on civility and its role in society, Herbst applies her analysis to three different sets of actors who used civility to pursue their goals. She begins by examining the case of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who vaulted into the public consciousness as Arizona Senator John McCain's running mate on the 2008 Republican presidential ticket. Next, she examines the role of civility in President Barack Obama's 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech regarding the controversial issue of abortion. Third, she analyzes a statewide survey of Georgia college students that uncovered unhappiness with civility—particularly with regard to their peers. The author then concludes with further discussion of the unique implications of new media for civility, as well as with some prescriptions for enhancing civility, including educating citizens about how to better participate in structured public debate and establish a culture of listening.

I found Herbst's surprisingly sympathetic analysis of Palin's candidacy and communication strategy to be by far the most interesting of these sections. In it, the author argues that much as earlier generations used parades, political festivals, and rallies to cement common political bonds among supporters, Palin strategically used passionate oratory and incivility to energize and strengthen bonds with her audience. Moreover, after reviewing footage of numerous Palin campaign events, Herbst bears firsthand witness to the excitement and engagement conveyed by the candidate at these events. She also seems struck by the efficiency and multilayered impact of some of Palin's attacks, as well as her full-throated defense of such incivility. Moreover, she postulates that Palin's relatively aggressive rhetorical style might itself have reflected a strategic choice that enabled her running mate to effect a more civil stance in his own campaigning (e.g., serving as the “bad cop” to McCain's “good cop”).

In contrast to her relatively congenial picture of Palin's campaigning strategy, Herbst is quite negative in her assessment of news coverage and commentary regarding the candidate's campaign events. In particular, Herbst addresses relatively widespread accusations of bad behavior among participants at Palin's campaign events. After undertaking an informal analysis of the content of such news stories and commentary pieces, the author finds overwhelming negativity regarding the behavior of individual participants at the rallies. In contrast, she finds little empirical justification presented by news organizations that any misbehavior in Palin's crowd was either widespread or atypical, compared to crowds at Democratic events.

Herbst's implication that the news media held Palin to a different standard than other candidates is explicitly argued later when she concludes that this “bold, female voice unlike any before it” (p. 57) triggered unfortunate gender and sexual dynamics in the coverage of her. Palin fell victim to a “sexy danger” theme in the coverage, which focused more on her physical appearance and male following than her beliefs about gender issues. Moreover, Herbst expresses surprise at the demeaning and occasionally misogynistic attacks on Palin from unexpected sources, such as liberal bloggers and commentators. (Given the book's 2010 publication date, Herbst is unable to comment on the widespread speculation in the news media in early 2011 that Palin's rhetorical style had helped encourage Jared Lee Loughner to shoot 18 people at a political event in Tucson, Arizona, including Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords.)

I was fascinated by Herbst's discussion of the impact of traditional and online media on civility. In the case of traditional media, I would have been interested in better understanding the role of sources (particularly the opposing party) in identifying and defining incivility. It seems fairly clear that once one assumes that the definition of incivility is malleable, strategic political actors will work to define it in the manner most advantageous to their own goals, and journalists and the public will be asked to choose among different and competing definitions.

Similarly, in online communication, Herbst seems to believe that people aggravated by uncivil behavior could choose to solve those problems by self-policing. Unfortunately, the Internet is filled with examples of beneficial communities that have been devalued by users who actually valued the disruption as a form of entertainment (including, ironically, the global Usenet discussion system, which the author actually cites as a hopeful example). This is one of the reasons for the development and popularity of “walled-off” communities online like Facebook, in which individuals have the power to select the people with whom they regularly communicate (and block communication from people who have committed a serious infraction).

The real-world ability of an uncivil few to block the communication of others is the basis of another concern I have with Herbst's definition of incivility. She self-identifies as a strong supporter of free speech (p. 4), but her use of such a flexible and situational conception of incivility appears to allow such blocking of speech if speakers believe their ends justifies those tactics. Herbst herself applies this logic to Herbert Marcuse's justification of harsh interference with the speech of others (p. 9) and stealing yard signs of opposing candidates (p. 8), among other examples. I also have concerns about the real-world practicality and utility of her suggestions for fostering skills in listening and debate, although I agree with her goals.

Of course, these are only a few of the many interesting implications of the text. Throughout Rude Democracy, Herbst identifies potential empirical research topics and unmet scholarly needs into which a new generation of scholars can profitably delve. I look forward to listening to and debating them.