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National Civility Month: Can a respectful tone ever return to politics?

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Mike Moen

(Greater Dakota News Service) August is National Civility Month, and finding common ground in politics without name-calling might seem like an insurmountable task.

An expert says a lot of factors led to this point, but some brave steps could ease the tension.

David Wiltse, associate professor of political science at South Dakota State University, said researchers have noticed a rise in "negative partisanship." Influenced by what they see on social media, he said people's enthusiasm for their own political party is outweighed by a desire to demonize those aligned with the other major party.

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"What's driving your partisanship is more of a sense of how different and how corrupt or evil your opposition is," Wiltse explained.

Wiltse noted politicians pick up on these cues, leading to extreme rhetoric on the campaign trail, especially for primary elections. But he argued it is up to the political elite to put a stop to it. Just like voters becoming more isolated from people with different viewpoints, he said members of Congress do not spend as much time around each other working on solutions as much as they used to.

But it is not just about leaders fostering an environment to reestablish relationship-building among federal lawmakers. Wiltse suggested politicians calling out members of their own party, to tone down hateful or inaccurate rhetoric, could help turn the tide.

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United State capitol in Washington, D.C. © iStock - Muni Yogeshwaran

"It's not as if every single politician is behaving this way," Wiltse acknowledged. "It's just you've got enough who really are fueling this incivility and really trying to use that as their pathway to power."

He cited the late Sen. John McCain in his 2008 presidential bid as an example of bravery that still might work today. The Arizona Republican confronted his own supporters for spreading inflammatory comments about his opponent, Barack Obama. Wiltse added while McCain's bid for the White House was not successful, his effort in addressing some of the nasty behavior appeared to be effective.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.