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ETC Conference: Media Has Tainted Political Civility in the U.S.

With less than a month until the general elections, community and political leaders came together to discuss the environment of political discourse at the University of California-San Diego’s Ethics, Transparency and Civility Conference. Shortened to E-T-C, these three pillars found in politics, business, as well as education, left the audience and participants thinking about integrity, responsibility, and commonalities in everyday life.

The civility panel moderator, Thad Kousser, a UCSD professor of Political Science, explained that “this conference will advance the dialogue about key issues in the health of our democracy.” In assessing the health and context of civility, the panelists found a common theme: the impact of the media and how it affects participation.

Panelists included Robby Boparai, UCSD Associated Student President, San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria, Chad Peace, legal counsel for the Independent Voter Project, National Conflict Resolution Center Director Steven Dinkin, Senator State Marty Block, Assemblymember Marie Waldron, and Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez.

“The lack of civility is exaggerated. Media portrays individuals in government as constantly disagreeing and turns off voters,” Boparai said, kicking off the panel.

He explained that the media’s exaggeration of conflict creates a disparity for young voters, saying,

“I speak to a lot of young people, and it is very interesting to me that by in large they don’t have a great deal of respect or interest in politics because they think it is a dirty business. They see this conflict that is portrayed to them and they don’t want to be involved in it. And yet, they are deeply involved in their communities in community service and engagement.” – Todd Gloria, San Diego City Council President

In a 2014 survey of American college students, the Panetta Institute for Public Policy concluded “that only 25 percent of college students say they are paying ‘very’ or ‘fairly close’ attention to news about the 2014 elections.” The Institute also found that “gridlock between the political parties” concerns over 50 percent of students at U.S. colleges and universities.

Mr. Peace touched on the relationship between politicians and political consultants and how that has had the worst impact on civility in politics.

“Most people in office really are civic people. So why do we have incivility? Political consultants,” he said.

“There is an advantage to incivility when you made a process about a competition between left and right. We have artificially created a discussion where there is one answer on the right and one answer on the left. An election shouldn’t be able wining a particular argument, it should be who can discuss that argument the best and who can listen the best.”

Senator Block added that campaigns are set up to be uncivil, even same-party races are hostile. Assemblymember Walden agreed.

“There is a failure to listen,” she explained. “So many people want to speak and worry what they are going to say next, and they are not listening to what the other person is saying.”

In conclusion, whether or not civility has been tainted by passive aggressiveness and campaign attack ads, or misunderstood due to cultural and personal differences, the panel found a common thread in the current state of civility — media. Because so much time is spent focusing on close votes, partisan leads, and campaign mudslinging to reach Americans as consumers and not as voters, a majority of Americans are disenchanted by the political process.

Boparai closed out the panel saying, “What sells papers is not what gets people out to vote.”