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Uncommon Courtesy: Professor Talks Civility, Compromise in Modern Politics

Provided by Michael R. Wolf

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Provided by Michael R. Wolf
Written by: Zachary D. ElickMarch 01, 2017

How important is civility in politics? And how has it changed over the years?

These are the kinds of questions Michael R. Wolf, political science professor and chair of the department, has been exploring in his research since 2010.

Wolf will present his findings in “The Outlook for Political Civility and Compromise in the Trump Age,” noon -1:15 p.m. March 30 in the Walb Classic Ballroom. The lecture is this year’s Spring  installment of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Distinguished Lecture Series. Every year, the series features a two lectures: one from an IPFW professor in the Spring and another from an outside scholar in the Fall, according to the COAS webpage.

Polling research Wolf helped fund in 2010 and 2012 showed an increase in voters being motivated by “negative partisanship,” affecting their openness to their politicians compromising with the other side, he said.

“More and more, in effect, voters are negative toward the other party. (They are more) mobilized by disliking the other side than even liking their own side,” Wolf said. “This drives to a view of not wanting to compromise.”

Wolf noted that over the past 30 years Republican voters have been considerably less likely to tolerate compromise than Democratic ones, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. This trend bore out in his own research, Wolf said. Yet, resistance to compromise was also seen in strong partisan voters from either side.

“So, compromise to a lot of people, at first blush, it comes out as something that’s needed because they see it in everyday life. You need to compromise with others in order to get things done,” Wolf said. “But then it separates out into a real notion of, at times, principles being at stake, that you shouldn’t be compromising.”

Since Wolf’s data was only from years with Democratic president in the White House, he said he is interested to see how things could change in the future.

“Now that the Republicans control all the chambers, they might to be more open to some level of compromise, and Democrats may not want to compromise. We’ll see,” Wolf said.

New polling data from 2016, collected by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College, could shed some more light on this topic, Wolf said.

Collected during the 2016 Presidential Election campaign, Wolf said he hopes to add this new data to his own research as soon as the Goldfarb Center makes it available to him to analyze.

Wolf said he has already seen evidence of a potential change in the political civility —  the tone and demeanor — of Democratic voters. He pointed to the numerous rowdy town hall meetings all over the country the past few weeks, where attendees angrily yelled at Republican lawmakers.

“Is it context? Is it being out of power that drives you to be uncivil or is it the two parties see this differently?” Wolf said. “And it could be either of both. It could be both going on. We’ll just have to see.”

Wolf said the point of his research isn’t necessarily to police the actions or language of those involved in politics. For example, sometimes incivility can be a positive thing, according to Wolf.

“Social movements begin with usually very less than civil tones because people have been locked out of positions of power, and the only way to gain attention is through uncivil actions,” he said. “So, it’s not to say that compromise and civility are necessarily always needed.”

However, Wolf also pointed out that working effectively in the U.S. government does require some levels of civility and compromise.

“Our system is very complicated, (with its) checks and balances,” Wolf said. “Compromise makes the system go.”