Herbst, Susan. Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics.

Author:Friedman, Barry D.
Position:Book review

Herbst, Susan. Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. x + 203 pages. Cloth, $24.95.

On January 8, 2011, when John M. Roll, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, and five others were killed, and U.S. Representative Gabrielle D. Giffords (D-AZ) and thirteen others were wounded by a deranged gunman at a Tucson, Arizona, supermarket, politicians, news commentators, and private citizens wondered whether the harshness of the nation's political rhetoric might have provoked the assault. The tragedy followed, by five months, the publication of this volume by public-opinion researcher Susan Herbst, who will soon assume the presidency of the University of Connecticut. If this book helps readers understand whether incivility in political discourse interferes with the healthy operation of the political system and the productivity of the policymaking process, Herbst would have contributed an intelligent analysis of circumstances like the devastating Tucson incident.

Appropriately, Herbst does not resort to the naivete of endorsing civility and denouncing incivility. "... [T]ying ourselves up in knots about what is fight or wrong, civil or uncivil," she suggests, "is far less useful than educating Americans about how to debate and develop the thick skin that strong democratic debate demands" (p. 9). Insofar as a scenario in which discourse is unfailingly polite is beyond attainment, an analysis of the reasons for and results of civility and incivility is more productive. Herbst aptly explains a political actor's decision to express opinions in a civil or uncivil manner as a matter of strategy, which is based on the actor's assessment of which method is more likely to accomplish his/her objectives.

Herbst assigns President Barack Obama as her poster boy for civility, discussing, for example, his May 17, 2009, commencement...

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