What Happened to Civility in Politics and Can We Get It Back?

Virginia has a long history of civil political discourse, which can be repaired and restored. Part of that responsibility lies with the media and part with citizens who are consumers of media.


Bob Gibson came to the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia as executive director in March 2008. He is a 1972 graduate of the University of Virginia with a B.A. in government and foreign affairs. After serving as news director of WCHV radio, he joined The Daily Progress in August 1976 and has held a number of positions with the newspaper. He began his career covering police and local courts and has covered state and local politics and government. He was named city editor in 1982 and later special projects editor in 1992 when he wrote a series about racial disparities and justice in local courts.

In addition to his newspaper work, Bob hosted a weekly political call-in show on WINA radio in Charlottesville for seven years. He has also hosted a public radio talk show since 2001 on WVTF-FM in Roanoke and Charlottesville. He has been a regular contributor and guest on public radio station WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show in Washington and often serves as host of Evening Edition on public radio WVTF.

Bob is the winner of several Virginia Press Association awards, the 1993 Virginia Bar Association Award in the Field of Law and Justice and the 1993 Southern Journalism Award for investigative reporting about racial disparities in sentencing.

Bob grew up in Arlington, VA, and has a long personal interest in Virginia’s politics and government. He is married to Sarah McConnell, who hosts the public radio program, “With Good Reason,” from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. They have three daughters: Helen, Logan and Stella.

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Mr. Gibson spoke at the November 10, 2010 meeting of the Senior Statesmen of Virginia.  The meeting was held at The Charlottesville Senior Center. Following the presentation, questions were taken from the audience. The program was moderated by SSV member Bob McGrath.

Program Summary

At the November 10 SSV meeting, Bob Gibson addressed the topic, “What Happened to Civility in Politics, and Can We Get It Back?” In referring to the mid-term elections, he noted a disconnect between those who vote in presidential elections and those who vote in other elections. Younger voters tend to not immerse themselves in issues to the extent that voters who have been around a longer time. Civility is not dead-just gone into hiding during the time of base elections where each side is playing to its base; trying to turn out its own base; and trying to suppress the other side’s base.

The parties engage in advertising that is simplistic, twisted, nasty, and mean. Politicians are expected to play to their base or they are not rewarded. Hurt won over Perriello 51 to 47 percent. The electorate usually votes based on record and constituent service, but this election became totally nationalized–Tom Perriello’s name became “Tom Pelosi.” Who was the number one offender in the fifth district election, Hurt or Perriello? Neither-independent expenditures with undisclosed contributions in the millions were made to define Perriello and Hurt.

Several factors are constantly at work against civility: the 24-hour news cycle with the national cable media’s obsession to find and amplify the loudest and most strident voices and is driven into partisan political camps; four years ago there were four Virginia newspapers with bureaus in Washington-now all gone; we now rely on other avenues-what he calls “designer media” with the public watching the views that comport with own. Political news is celebrity driven, personality driven, and entertainment driven. One factor against stability is the permanent campaign-votes are set up to catch a legislator in a vote that will be politically unpalatable in the next election. Look two years ahead instead of looking five or six years to solve important issues. Politicians are rewarded or punished on a two-year cycle. They no longer socialize across party boundaries. Hurt was a moderate who worked across the isle-you’d never know it now. Bob knows Hurt and Perriello and says they both are much, much better and finer individuals than any of the ads would ever let on.

In terms of regaining some civility, there is a likelihood that the president and new Congress will reach across the isle for cooperation on some of the major issues. But this newfound attempt at civility and bipartisanship will not last-there is a window during the next six to eight months to work together, but then they will retreat back to their base camps.

So how can we improve our civility in politics? Bob called on members of the audience to share their perspectives. One comment was that politicians should stand up and tell the rest of their base that they won’t accept incivility-adults have become children. Another said that a basis for civility would be to have a common ground of practical, factual truth. Bob noted that nonprofits are offering themselves as partners with the major media outlets to cover news events, and will present reporting that is as fact-based, reliable and nonpartisan as we can find. For example, the SSV programs are covered by the Charlottesville Podcasting Network. There is a need to petition the Congress to enact real, meaningful disclosure. Virginia has the cleanest form of disclosure system-full disclosure of any contribution over $100-and Congress needs to enact legislation before the situation gets out-of-hand nationally.

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