The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans’ behavior gets worse. No wonder our politics are lousy.

LaGuardia Airport in New York on Aug. 2, 2021. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg)

If politics is downstream from culture, then culture is downstream from character. And right now, we have a character crisis in America. It’s often characterized as a civility crisis.

“In a study of 1,000 American adults during the pandemic, 48 percent of adults and 55 percent of workers said that in November 2020, they had expected that civility in America would improve after the election,” the New York Times reports. “By August, the expectations of improvement had fallen to 30 percent overall and 37 percent among workers. Overall, only 39 percent of the respondents said they believed that America’s tone was civil.” And no surprise: “The study also found that people who didn’t have to work with customers were happier than those who did.”

It would be convenient to blame covid-19 or Donald Trump, but the problem started long before either became a national blight. Back in 2013, studies were warning that “civility in America continues to disintegrate and rude behavior is becoming the ‘new normal.’" The report “Civility in America 2019” found that 93 percent of Americans identified incivility as a problem; 68 percent considered it a “major” one, and 74 percent thought it was getting worse.

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“Incivility,” which one associates with minor social infractions or foul language, doesn’t really capture the enormity of the crisis, though. Airline passengers assaulting flight attendants, parents threatening school board members, customers haranguing store clerks or fellow shoppers — these have all become common occurrences. Scholarly studies document increased hostility in the workplace, too.

Author and columnist Tom Nichols has been writing for years about “a long trend of rising narcissism and a sense of entitlement that was enabled by peace, prosperity, and rapidly improving living standards.” We’ve become impatient, selfish, self-absorbed and increasingly violent — all before the pandemic. The coronavirus merely worsened the problem by fueling a surge in mental and stress-related illness.

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Our expectations (instant, perfect service, no matter how unreasonable the demand) are out of whack not only with pandemic-stricken America but really any society under the best of conditions. Flights get canceled. Stores run out of merchandise. Obscure items take time to get delivered. Our capacity for inconvenience is as small as our national attention span — and both have been shrunk by social media that prods us to anger. For every Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene banned from Twitter, there’s an army of equally offensive users.

Understandably, parents have been frustrated by school shutdowns. But fury at schools is disproportionate and entirely unfair. Imagine if schools had continued in person pre-vaccine and children had died.

Monday-morning quarterbacking and I-told-you-so invective are practically national pastimes. Solutions to unprecedented and complicated problems are somehow supposed to be self-

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evident and come without adverse consequences of their own. And sure enough, the media and public will become incensed when political leaders turn out to lack clairvoyance.

Elected officials should set a better example on the civility, tolerance and decency front. But keep in mind that craven politicians more often than not follow the herd. They race to catch up to the unhinged mob, aping the public’s vulgarity, rudeness and proclivity for violence. (Hence, Ivy League-educated senators sound like angry country bumpkins and campaign ads depicting candidates shooting something become commonplace.)

Blame the decline in religious faith or the proliferation of cringe-worthy entertainment. Blame Mark Zuckerberg. Blame parents for not parenting, teachers for not teaching and ministers for not ministering. But ultimately, adults are responsible for their own conduct. And if we can no longer muster enough self-restraint, empathy, civic-mindedness, self-discipline and rationality to navigate ordinary interactions, responsible self-governance will remain out of reach.

Unless we all shape up, demand better of ourselves and others, and reassert basic social norms, democracy and social cohesion will continue to unravel.

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