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Trump didn’t shake hands. Pelosi ripped up his speech. Do Americans care about civility?

Yes, they’re offended — when the other party is rude

- February 5, 2020

President Trump’s State of the Union address on Feb. 5, 2020, attracted less attention for the content than for what happened after.

As the audience rose to applaud, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ripped up her copy of Trump’s speech. This may have been a reaction to Trump’s apparent refusal to shake her extended hand, but there is little doubt that Pelosi (D-Calif.) knew she was on camera and the gesture would convey her disapproval of Trump’s remarks.

Vice President Pence reprimanded the speaker on Fox News, describing her action as a “new low.” Law professor Jonathan Turley, who had been a GOP witness in the House impeachment proceedings, tweeted that “Pelosi’s act dishonored the institution and destroyed even the pretense of civility and decorum in the House.” He later called for Pelosi to either apologize or resign.

Is political politeness and civility as important as all that?

In a survey we conducted in the fall, we asked citizens several questions about the role of civility in public life. We looked at two examples of potentially rude or uncivil behavior: first, Trump’s tendency to give his opponents controversial nicknames, and second, a Washington Nationals crowd booing Trump during the fifth game of the World Series. Our results suggest that while citizens generally think being civil is relatively important in a democracy, they don’t agree on what is uncivil. Interestingly, even in these hyper-polarized times, Republicans did not automatically or universally condone Trump’s impolite behavior.

We asked Americans about the importance of civility in politics

In our survey, we asked roughly 2,000 Americans about their partisan leanings and support for Trump. Then we asked them to rank a variety of principles by importance, including big issues such as the rule of law and little ones such as whether elections are held on the same day every year. We included two kinds of civility in the list: citizens being civil to one another and politicians being civil to one another. We also asked whether Trump’s habit of “giving his opponents nicknames” was relatively politically effective, whether they liked it, and whether they thought it was politically uncivil.

Then we asked whether, if they had been at that World Series game, they would have joined in the booing. They had four possible answers: yes, no, unsure, or no, but “only because Trump is the president and [they] respect the office.” We also asked whether they thought the crowd was rude to boo him.

People agree on the value of civility — but they don’t agree on what’s rude

People from both parties ranked the two kinds of civility as important. But they ranked “citizens being civil to one another” as being significantly more important than “politicians being civil to one another.” This might suggest that they think public displays of bombast and vitriol are part of everyday politics.

However, they disagreed on Trump’s use of nicknames to mock the physical characteristics of his opponents and on the World Series booing. Here, party allegiances matter. Nearly half (47 percent) of the Democrats in our sample said they would have booed Trump; 22 percent were unsure; and roughly 18 percent said they’d refrain because they respected the presidency. Only 13 percent of Democrats said they wouldn’t have booed on general principle. Among the Republicans, nearly 67 percent would not have booed; only 7 percent were unsure; and a mere 5 percent said they would have booed. Interestingly, a full 21 percent said they wouldn’t have booed — but only because they respected the office, suggesting a surprising degree of distance from Trump. Fully 85 percent of Republicans thought the booing was rude, while only 33 percent of Democrats did.

Similarly, more than 75 percent of Democrats disliked Trump’s use of nicknames, and nearly 67 percent think it violates the norm of political civility. By contrast, less than 40 percent of Republicans disliked the nicknames, and less than 33 percent thought they violated norms of political civility.

Taken together, this suggests that some of the respondents were hypocrites. Nearly 39 percent of Republicans simultaneously liked the nicknames but thought booing was rude. Similarly, nearly 62 percent of Democrats simultaneously thought booing was fine but disliked the nicknames, although sizable groups in each party thought both were rude: 46 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Democrats. Given what we know about partisanship, it’s likely that many thought mean-spirited behavior against “their” side was worse than mean-spirited behavior toward their opponents.

Republicans may have mixed feelings about Trump’s incivility

It’s hardly surprising that partisanship influenced the answers. More interesting is the fact that Republicans don’t universally support Trump’s incivility. Only 31 percent like his offensive nicknames, while 40 percent dislike the habit. A full 30 percent of Republicans said they were indifferent, compared with only 13 percent of Democrats. Perhaps they want neither to openly criticize the president nor to support his impoliteness.

Pelosi’s tearing of Trump’s speech may have grabbed more headlines than Trump’s turning away from her outstretched hand, but these are only two of many recent examples of political rudeness. Many people respond from a partisan viewpoint and will probably be hypocritically outraged by incivility that would have seemed fine had it been committed by their own side. But most Americans do see some value to civility. And Trump’s uncivil behavior has less support among Republicans than we might think.

Sarah E. Croco (@SarahCroco) is an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park and the author of “Peace at What Price: Leader Culpability and the Domestic Politics of War Termination” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Jacob Silverman (@jsilverman11) is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he is a double major in mechanical engineering and government and politics.