In the pews at South Church in Glastonbury, the Rev. Richard Allen can feel the chill from the angry political mood that has seized hold of the country.
“There’s lots of negative air out there,” says Allen, senior minister at South Church.
Allen said he tells parishioners to channel their frustration and anger with the current political climate in positive ways: write to their elected officials or get involved with a local organization whose mission they share in.
“I try to steer people into constructive directions,” he said.
The country’s simmering political rage — which turned sharply violent last week with an attack on Congressional Republicans — has raised deeper concerns about a fundamental breakdown in civility across the nation.
Among some of his patients, Harold Schwartz, psychiatrist-in-chief at the Institute of Living in Hartford, sees a sense that “the standards of civil behavior and the standards of how government institutions should work … are eroding.”
“Are these people influenced by the things that happen around them? There is no question,” Schwartz said, who is also the regional vice president for behavioral health at Hartford Healthcare.
Democrats, and some Republicans, have said President Donald Trump has accelerated the breakdown in discourse.
“While the political rhetoric and intolerance between parties has been increasing for years, there’s no question that the rhetoric was ratcheted up enormously during the 2016 campaign by a candidate who gloried in his bullying behavior and talked about a desire to see people in the audience who might have been heckling him punched out,” Schwartz said.
Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, told MSNBC that he believes Trump is at least “partially” to blame for the current hostile political environment and the “demons that have been unleashed.” Trump at one point during his campaign talked about wanting to assault protesters and promised to pay legal fees for his supporters who did so.
“The fact that you’ve got the top guy saying ‘Well I wish I could hit you in the face and if not why don’t you and I’ll pay your legal fees,’ that’s bizarre,” Sanford said. “We ought to call it as such.”
Anger As A Virtue
Republicans have countered that liberals too have contributed to the increasingly violent mood of national politics. They chastised comedian Kathy Griffin when she posed on social media holding Trump’s severed head. And a centuries-old Shakespeare play, “Julius Caesar,” became a political football when the title character, who is assassinated, was replaced with a stand-in for Trump.
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., shared a conservative commentator’s sentiment that “glorifying” the assassination of Trump may have played a role in the baseball shooting.
U.S. Rep. John Larson, a Democrat who represents Connecticut’s 1st Congressional District, said political rhetoric can “spill over” and have dangerous consequences. “When you’re constantly stoking those fires … then unfortunately bad things can result,” he said. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-4th District, said lawmakers have an obligation to a “level of civility” even when they disagree.
An annual “Civility in America” survey released last week found a record-high number of respondents (69 percent) said incivility was a “major problem” in America today. Of the respondents, 59 percent said they stopped paying attention to politics because of incivility; 75 percent blamed politicians for incivility and 59 percent blamed the media.
“The vast majority of Americans want our public and political discourse to be civil,” said Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. “Unfortunately incivility, often led by media and our political leaders, is gaining a foothold as the social norm.”
Daniel Lattier, vice president of Intellectual Takeout, a Minnesota-based organization that bills itself as a “think tank promoting rational discourse,” said he believes some of the political anger people feel is the result of being “constantly fed news” about national politics, often with a dire tone, and feeling helpless to do anything about it. That helplessness can lead to frustration and anger.
“If you’re disconnected, if you feel powerless, anger can be one of the ways that you feel power,” he said.
But Lattier also offered this alternative theory: increasingly in today’s society, “our culture has come to see anger, at least in this case, as a virtue.” He cited the phrase “If you aren’t outraged, then you just aren’t paying attention.”
“Anger has thus become identified with political and cultural awareness,” he wrote in a recent post on the think tank’s website.
Lingering Election Stress
Results from an American Psychological Association survey last year that showed the presidential election was a significant source of stress for half of Americans were so striking that the organization commissioned a follow-up. A second survey confirmed that, months after Trump had been elected, there was still deep concern about the political climate and the future of the country, among both Democrats and Republicans.
“The election discourse brought to the surface many of the hot points of where we tend to disagree in the country,” said Lynn Bufka, a researcher with the APA. “From many people’s perspectives there has not been much movement toward resolving those kinds of differences.”
While Trump may have furthered the divide, America has been becoming more politically polarized for decades. From 2004 to 2014, the number of people who identified as uniformly liberal or conservative across most values doubled, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Partisan divides have deepened across most core political domains, including on nearly every measure in the ideological consistency scale,” the report concluded.
And those partisan divides can manifest themselves in people’s non-political lives too, according to Pew’s research. The report found that 45 percent of people who expressed mostly conservative views would be “unhappy” if a family member married a Democrat and 31 percent of people who expressed mostly liberal views would feel the same if a family member married a Republican. Half of conservatives surveyed and 35 percent of liberals said it was important to live in a place “where most people share my political views.”
A Polarized Climate
Martin Dunleavy, who has been involved in Democratic politics at the local, state and national level for decades, attributed the growing divide to three key factors: members of Congress socializing together less in Washington, an influx of money in politics that requires candidates to campaign nonstop — playing to their respective bases for fundraising dollars — and the increase of partisan media outlets.
“Clearly we need some reset where we can disagree, strongly disagree, on political solutions without vilifying a person who has a different idea,” he said.
Dunleavy said politics has shifted away from a form of civic engagement and become “purely partisan.” He worries that the polarized climate — in Washington, in the media and increasingly in cities and towns across America — is turning people off politics altogether.
“As partisan and as left as I am I think it’s bad when my neighbors no longer pay attention and may choose not to vote,” Dunleavy said. “When people stop participating … that’s the death of democracy.”
Former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, a Republican, said that during the 22 years he was in Congress, he routinely worked across the aisle with Democrats.
“When I was first elected to Congress you would have been thrown out … if you couldn’t work with the other side,” he said. But most members today have “never known a Congress where Democrats and Republicans worked together for the good of the country.”
Shays blamed the problem on political leaders targeting liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats to win seats in an effort to secure a majority — a tactic he says cost him his Fairfield County seat. The result is that both caucuses have been pushed further to the extremes, he said.
“Newt Gingrich didn’t want us to work with Democrats that were targets,” Shays said of the former U.S. Representative who was Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999. Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who was House Speaker from 2007 to 2011, “didn’t want her caucus to work with the Republican caucus,” Shays added. “That’s why it happened. And it is incredibly destructive.”
“We used to play basketball with each other,” Shays said. “Not Republicans versus Democrats, but Republicans and Democrats versus Republicans and Democrats. They do not know what it’s like to work with the other side.”