Civility be damned! Why Americans like it when politicians fight.

Vice President Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan throw down during the vice presidential debate. (Photo from REUTERS/John Gress)

The boxing metaphors are flying about the political “slugfest” at last night’s Vice Presidential debate where a “fiery” Joe Biden “bared his teeth” as he and rival Paul Ryan “fiercely quarreled

It was a stark contrast with the ninety minutes of pleasantries exchanged by President Obama and Mitt Romney last week.

At the watch party I attended for the first debate, it only took about 10 minutes before my co-watchers and I were slumped over our smart phones following #bigbird or gossiping in the kitchen.

In short, we were bored. Every once in a while someone would look up and say something like “God, when is Obama going to call him out?” or “Jeeze, are they EVER going to talk about social issues?”

In a country that complains constantly about incivility in political discourse, it’s a wonder how clearly uninterested we are in polite politics.

“That’s true,” says a chuckling David Domke, who studies political rhetoric at the University of Washington Department of Communications (where I am currently employed #fulldisclosure). “When we do get into the 1789 British Parliament kind of discussions, then people tend to get bored, because we’re ill-suited as a culture to appreciate it.”

But it’s not just my entertainment seeking, short-attention spanned, reality TV saturated demographic that got me thinking about what we really mean when we say we want more civil political discourse. I just spent six weeks in the Former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia) and realized that our political culture looks like High freaking Tea with the Queen by comparison.

A few months before I arrived in Ukraine there was a full on brawl in the Parliament (and I mean fist-to-face punch-out here).

A few days before I arrived in Russia, a woman running for mayor had fake dollar bills thrown at her and US flag shoved in her hand by opposition protestors.

Really, that’s pretty tame for Russia. There’s also the punk protest and subsequent imprisonment of Pussy Riot, and the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, who might sticker your windshield, poop on your car (at least according to this movie) or beat you within an inch of your life (which is what blogger Oleg Kashin believes happened to him) if you get on their bad side.

“Incivility has been around,” says Domke, who cites the culture of Britain’s House of Commons as an example of rowdy politics abroad and points out that a US Vice President once shot the Secretary of the Treasury in a duel. “I’m not of the mind that the level of incivility in politics has fundamentally changed but that the delivery system for consuming those politics has fundamentally changed.”

So if it’s not civility in politics we want then what is it?

“My gut on it is that they’re frustrated,” says Jessica Jones of CityClub, a civic non-profit in Seattle currently working on a “Civil Civics” campaign that includes a poll of public opinion on the issue of civility in politics. “They’re feeling like they aren’t being heard and they’re wanting to cut through that.”

It’s also about getting stuff done, says Domke, who thinks it’s ineffectiveness that truly frustrates Americans. He points out that debates about health care, abortion and immigration have been left unresolved for decades.

“[There is] a sense that the American political system doesn’t get things done,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind seeing politicians going after each other, even punching each other out, if at the end of it they shook hands and passed some legislation.”

Jones, who brags she has a plaque above her desk that says, “What do we want? Respectful discourse. When do we want it? Now would be agreeable with me but I’m interested in your opinion,” would probably mind.

She even says there’s room for improvement in Super Polite Seattle (gasp!), especially in online comments where anonymity tends to lead to personal attacks and even hate speech.

“I don’t think it’s just the politicians that are being uncivil, I think we need to look at all of the pieces of the puzzle,” says Jones, who also might have been taking a light jab at me and my bored debate watching buds, “that includes taking responsibility for ourselves.”

Things get rowdy in the British House of Commons.

So we don’t have fistfights in Congress and we don’t have right-wing youth groups at the President’s beck and call roaming the streets. But it’s clear that we’re unhappy with the current state of our political culture, and that we feel something is broken.

“We don’t lack for violence in our culture, it can’t be that that offends us,” says Domke taking a break from watching a football game on Sunday afternoon,  “…there’s plenty of violence [in football] but at the end of the game someone has won.”

“And then you move on to the next fight,” I add.

“Exactly,” he says—an exuberant cheer from the game filtering through the phone and cutting him off.


This post was produced with support from CityClub. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CityClub.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at