Civility in public life seems to be fading fast. Take, for example, the insult hurled at President Obama during his address to Congress on healthcare. Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, "You lie!" after Obama said his plan would not provide coverage for illegal immigrants. Wilson quickly apologized, but the House reprimanded him last week after Democrats argued that Wilson didn't show proper respect for the president.
It's not just politics that's been contaminated by the viruses of rudeness, self-indulgence, and just plain nastiness. In the last several weeks, rapper Kanye West disrupted the MTV Video Music Awards by interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech because he didn't think she deserved the honor for Best Female Video. President Obama then stepped into the mess when, in a supposedly off-the-record comment prior to a TV interview, he called West a "jackass." This caused another sensation. Last but not least, the sports world was thrown into a tizzy when tennis star Serena Williams berated and threatened a line judge after a controversial call at the U.S. Open. She was penalized during the match and later fined.
Yet it is in politics where incivility seems the most harmful. Vitriol can poison the debate in Washington and cause a stalemate in doing the public's business. Just as important, if the president's authority is undermined, the credibility of the entire government is jeopardized. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says Obama's critics are trying to "delegitimize" him, attacking his policies in order to destroy his presidency. This is part of the same long-term trend of demonization that caused opponents to mercilessly attack George W. Bush and Bill Clinton over the course of 16 years.
The difference today is that Obama is the first African-American president, and some of his advocates say racism is at work. Certainly, the level of fury directed at Obama this summer at various rallies and other events was unusually intense. And there have been false arguments from the "birther" movement that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, as the official records verify, a charge designed to show that Obama is not a "real" American.
Former President Jimmy Carter drew considerable attention last week by arguing that racism is indeed at the heart of the anti-Obama movement. "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man," Carter told NBC. He added that racism has "bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."
White House officials were quick to disagree, arguing that most Americans aren't assessing Obama based on his skin color. To the president's strategists, the race issue is a serious distraction from their campaign to win congressional approval of a healthcare overhaul.
For his part, President Obama tells friends that he believes that most Americans are rooting for him to succeed, and he feels strong support and affection from everyday people outside Washington. "I think what he's struck by, what all of us are struck by, is as you travel the country, there's so many people who offer their support and good wishes," says David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser. "There is not this sense of harsh division, and I'm always mindful of the fact that, especially in today's age, the loudest, angriest voices tend to get outsized attention because they make for better TV." Axelrod adds that a recent Washington Post survey shows that "two thirds of the people polled have warm and positive feelings about him, regardless of what they thought about his policies. I think he's got a great relationship with the American people."
But political scientist Bill Galston at the Brookings Institution sees the current breakdown in civility as "the next step in a very long, nasty road we have been going down," heading toward more polarization, less tolerance of other people's viewpoints, and attacks that go beyond the pale. Galston, a former White House adviser to President Clinton, points out that critics often accused George W. Bush of lying about the reasons for going to war in Iraq. "Calling Bush a liar was a cottage industry for a while," Galston says, but he adds: "Yelling it to the president's face is a step further than where we've been."