Ashamed: Americans Want Civil Politics — Allegheny College National Poll on Civility and Compromise

MEADVILLE, Pa. – April 21, 2010 – In one of the first comprehensive studies of how Americans view the tone of political discourse, researchers find troubling signs.

Although an overwhelming number of Americans say they believe civility and compromise are essential characteristics of a democracy, they also say that they do not see these values reflected in today’s political environment.  Instead, citizens say they see rancor, anger and hostility — and they’re worried.

The study springs from a comprehensive telephone survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, developed and commissioned by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College. The poll was conducted by Zogby International during the last week of March, immediately following the historic health care debate.

Some 95 percent of Americans believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy, and 87 percent suggest it is possible for people to disagree about politics respectfully.  Some 70 percent support compromise solutions on a range of contentious issues.

Asked if Americans should be proud or ashamed of the way elected officials handled the health care reform initiative, 69 percent said “ashamed” and only 21 percent said “proud.”

The survey found that citizens who pay close attention to politics are four times as likely to say that the tone of political discourse has gotten worse than those who pay only modest attention to the news.  But perceptions vary according to a respondent’s primary media source.  Radio listeners, for example, are much more likely to perceive a decline in civility than are newspaper readers.

“While politicians and pundits will debate the causes and impacts of the deterioration in political civility, it’s heartening to see that Americans – adults with widely differing demographic profiles – overwhelmingly agree that coarseness and lack of respect are unacceptable,” said Daniel M. Shea, Allegheny College political science professor and the study’s lead author. “Many have assumed that our heightened interest in politics is fueling the rudeness. It’s not true.  People are attentive, ready to speak their mind, but they also know that politics doesn’t have to be vicious and mean-spirited.”

The study also asked respondents to help create a rule book for political discourse.  Ten items were assessed. Among the findings:

  • 89 percent thought belittling or insulting someone should be against the rules
  • 89 percent said comments about someone’s race or ethnicity should be considered unacceptable
  • 87 percent said personal attacks should be out
  • 85 percent thought shouting over someone during an argument should be against the rules.

Seventy-three percent said elected officials should do what is “good for the nation” instead of what is “popular with voters.”  And 85 percent said elected officials should pursue friendships with members of the other party.

A broad willingness to compromise was another key finding of the study.  “Contrary to what some have suggested, a vast majority of Americans want middle-ground solutions on a range of issues,” Shea said.

For example, 85 percent of respondents suggested politicians should find a compromise on health care, 78 percent on taxes, 66 percent on immigration and 63 percent on climate change.

As for assessing blame for the coarseness of political discourse, respondents identified political parties, elected officials and the media as the prime culprits. Women define civility differently than men and are more likely to label recent public political behaviors as uncivil.  Women are also more likely to be turned off to politics because of the negativity than are men.

“We’ve taken a good look at what folks think about the political process and there is deep disappointment,” Shea said. “Our study should be seen as a wake-up call for elected officials, media commentators and radio talk show hosts:  Clean up your act – and fast.”

Adding a bit of humor to the findings, the survey asked respondents what training they would recommend for the least civil politicians.  Some 40 percent recommended “a trip to the woodshed,” 32 percent said a “manners class with Emily Post” and 16 percent thought they should “retake kindergarten.”

“Although we see this survey as an important first step,” said Shea, “we are doing more than merely studying the problem.  We’re moving forward with a suite of integrated programs and tools to help citizens assess the tone of the rhetoric being used by candidates running for public office.  Allegheny is firmly committed to doing what it can to help turn things around.”

For example, the Center for Political Participation and the Civic Engagement Council at Allegheny will host a national conference of college Democrat and Republican leaders May 18-19. The purpose of the event is to enhance communication between young Democrats and Republicans, examine civility in politics and establish a high bar for the respectful exchange of ideas.

The complete report, “Nastiness, Name-calling and Negativity: The Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics,” which includes dozens of charts and graphs that illustrate the survey results, is available at The findings yield a margin of error of ± 3.2 percent.

About Allegheny College

Allegheny College is a national liberal arts college where 2,100 students with unusual combinations of interests and talents develop highly valued abilities to explore critical issues from multiple perspectives. A selective residential college in Meadville, Pa., Allegheny is one of 40 colleges featured in Loren Pope’s “Colleges That Change Lives” and is also featured in “Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You” and Peterson’s “Competitive Colleges, 400 Colleges That Attract the Best and the Brightest,” among many other guidebooks.

About the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College

In October 2002 Allegheny College established the Center for Political Participation, a national center dedicated to encouraging greater political involvement among young people by fostering an appreciation for the vital link between an engaged, active citizenry and a healthy democracy. Seeking new strategies and mechanisms for promoting political participation, the center has established programs for three audiences – Allegheny students (campus activities), scholars nationwide (scholarly research), and citizens of the wider community (educational outreach). In November 2007 the center founded the Soapbox Alliance, a group of institutions that are committed to ending the practice of holding closed campaign events in campus facilities.  Former President Bill Clinton endorsed the Soapbox Alliance in a speech he made at Allegheny on April 19, 2008.

For the Media

For more information, contact Barb Steadman at (814) 332-3335/(814) 397-9959 or