Trump’s and Pelosi’s incivility is hurting the government’s ability to function

President Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sent the internet into a frenzy after this week’s State of the Union address with twin acts of incivility. Before his speech, Trump seemingly declined to shake Pelosi’s hand after she extended it, and, at the end of the speech, Pelosi tore her copy of Trump’s remarks in half.


Incivility in our politics isn’t exactly new: Over the years, lawmakers in Congress have seen canings, brawls, death by duel, and tarring and feathering. So, then, the pair’s actions weren’t the most uncivil conduct on record, but the antics still are not acceptable. In fact, Trump and Pelosi are setting awful examples for their supporters, considering we’re more divided than ever. Some experts estimate that political polarization is at its worst since the Civil War, and childish feuds aren’t helping.

History tells us that we can’t afford to disregard civility during hardship or partisan disputes.

Indeed, a look to the past shows us how fragile our system of government is, and civility is the necessary social glue that binds us together in times of adversity. This is because true civility requires a fundamental respect for human dignity. Injustices from our past and present illustrate the consequences of failing to recognize the humanity and value of every person, especially for those we really don’t like, those who can’t benefit us, and those with whom we strongly disagree.

Unfortunately, though, it often seems that people’s willingness to defend or condemn instances of incivility today depends entirely on whether the offender is a member of the right political tribe.

If you’re not on my team, the logic goes, then your incivility is an unforgivable affront to common decency, but, if you are, then your incivility is for a greater good and is therefore justified. It’s also becoming more and more common to hear that we are in a post-civility era — the stakes are simply far too high to care about pleasantries and niceties, some say.

Of course, thinking back to the barbaric canings and brawls, this willingness to dispense with common courtesies is nothing new in history, but it’s nonetheless troubling, as civility is also necessary in particular for our unique system of limited government to thrive. Indeed, sincere civility promotes the equality, tolerance, and self-governance necessary for such a system to succeed.

We live out our national credo that “all men are created equal” when we act civilly, and we should be proud that we rejected the rules and social norms of the old aristocratic world of Europe where people were bound to a certain rank from birth to death and were always expected to defer to their social superiors.

Civility entails tolerance.

When we disagree, civility is how we can peacefully live together in spite of our disagreement. Reasonable minds can peacefully disagree, and, indeed, true civility means that even unreasonable minds deserve some basic level of respect. This is because, again, our disagreement doesn’t negate our value as people. Our national motto is, “E pluribus unum”: Out of many, one. When you have a lot of people living in a nation together, there will be differences and discord, but we ought to be connected and unified by our common humanity.

Lastly, civility is necessary to our democracy because it encourages self-governance.

A free society of diverse individuals can function without strict governmental restraints on behavior only when individuals exercise self-restraint and selflessness, when they act well even when they have the opportunity not to. Holding the door open for the person behind us, standing in line instead of jumping to the front of the queue, and resisting the urge to cut someone off in traffic, even though we may be in a hurry. When too many of us fail to exercise self-restraint and common courtesy, people will begin calling for the government to restrain us through burdensome laws and regulations.

Civility, then, is essential to our democracy. In recognizing this, we understand that our everyday interactions matter, whether the entire nation is watching, such as at the State of the Union, or whether no one is paying attention at all. For the sake of our nation, it’s imperative that more of our national leaders realize this in the days to come.

Alexandra Hudson (@LexiOHudson) is an Indianapolis-based writer, a 2020 Novak fellow, and a Young Voices contributor. She is writing a book on civility and American civic renewal.


Alexa, teach my child to be polite, please – The Washington Examiner

Though people and machines are different, acts of civility are driven by habits. Being impolite to Alexa can cause bad habits, especially in children, that may lead to incivility between people.
(Jessie Wardarski/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

“ Awexa, volume five. Awexa, NOW!”

This was not the first time Abigail overheard her four-year-old daughter give forceful commands, completely void of courtesy and social grace, to the family’s A.I. voice assistant.

“Is this a problem?” Abagail wondered to herself. “I mean, Alexa is just a machine. It would be different if she were speaking like this to a person.”

This is an inner dialogue many parents today are familiar with. They wonder whether they should be instructing their children to speak politely to artificial intelligence. Is it important for us to speak politely to household machines?

It is a truism that people, and not gadgets, inherently deserve respect. Only people have human dignity, the philosphical foundation for universal human rights, and are equally endowed with intrinsic worth.

However, though people and machines are different and are not due the same respect, acts of civility are driven by habits. Being impolite to Alexa can cause bad habits, especially in children, that may lead to incivility in the people we encounter.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” famously wrote Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. “Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”

A demeanor of respect, one that does not continually calculate the level of respect we ought to pay our intern versus our CEO, is the sort of habit of excellence that we can all strive to cultivate. Silly though it may seem, this habit formation, especially for children, starts with how we treat Alexa.

For this reason, it is fantastic that, starting May 9, Amazon will offer “ FreeTime,” a child-friendly system that enables customized parental control, including a “magic word feature.” This optional augmented parenting setting prevents Alexa from completing the requestor’s command if “please” and “thank you” are not offered. Alexa under FreeTime also communicates positive reinforcement when they do, saying “Thank you for being polite!”

Instead of voice assistant technology competing with face-to-face interaction as some fear, by ensuring children have the opportunity to develop the habits that help them better respect one another, FreeTime has the potential to strengthen a child’s ability to have human connection and interact in social settings. One other salient example of this positive use of technology is Milo, a robot created to support students with Autism Spectrum Disorder improve their communication and social skills with others.

A 2017 study by Commonsense Media, a non-profit, revealed that 98 percent of American households have a tablet or smartphone, and the amount of time children spend on these devices has tripled since 2013. Some may find this concerning, but it is also a tremendous opportunity for companies that produce these devices and smart home services to support parents in instructing their children in habits of common courtesies. They should capitalize on this and follow Amazon’s lead.

Democracy Prep, the high-performing national network of public schools, realizes this. To ensure what parents are teaching in the home is reinforced at school, they have in place the “PETSY” requirement. No student is permitted to have a request fulfilled without offering the context-appropriate “ Please”, “ Excuse me”, “ Thank-you”, “I’m Sorry”, or “ You’re welcome.”

It is especially important that children are taught these pro forma courtesies before they fully comprehend the significance of interpersonal power dynamics, such as those described in Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. Children must learn these common niceties prior to understanding the concept of personhood, and how the way that they communicate can either respect or belittle the dignity of those they encounter. As Aristotle explained 2,000 years ago, our actions form character, and then our character informs our actions.

As Abagail rightly noted, people are indeed different from machines. Gadgets do not bare the dignity that we do as human beings, and therefore do not merit the same level of respect that we owe to one another. However, in cultivating habits of respect and charity toward all, including Alexa, we take an important step to move away from the problematic process of constantly discerning what or who is worth being civil to.

There is little harm in ensuring your child is polite to Alexa. There is ample harm in, because of bad habits that start with hollering at Alexa, making those around us feel diminished in value.

“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative,” instructed H.G. Welles, the father of science fiction and an early conceptualizer of artificial intelligence. Adaptation is done best by using old values (such as the inherent value of every person) to navigate new landscapes (such as our interaction with the new inventions like the Alexas of the world).

Let us therefore cultivate habits of courtesy and civility to all, including Alexa.

Alexandra Hudson (@LexiOHudson) is a writer based in Indianapolis, working on a book about civility. She earned an M.S. in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar, and recently left a post at the U.S. Department of Education

Where Bernie Sanders is right about Scandinavia

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has pointed to Scandinavian countries as an example of how social services can work. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Charlie Neibergall

” We should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” declared Sen. Bernie Sanders during a recent Democratic presidential debate.

This is a common talking point among Democrats who want the United States to be more like European countries with higher taxes and a larger welfare safety net. Yet, it would likely shock progressives, probably even Sen. Sanders, to know that these countries, which they want to replicate here, have far more vibrant school choice programs than currently exist in the U.S. and Wisconsin.

A study I co-authored at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a Milwaukee-based think-tank, examined several school choice programs around the world, including Sweden, the Netherlands and Chile, comparing them to the voucher programs in Wisconsin. Critics of school choice outright condemn Wisconsin’s voucher programs, claiming that they will inevitably collapse the public school system all the while worsening achievement gaps among students and hurting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But global policy and evidence suggests otherwise. Our survey demonstrates how empowering parents and students to choose the education that best meets their needs is not a uniquely American or even “conservative” policy.

In Sweden, every child, regardless of socioeconomic status or geographic location, is eligible for a voucher to attend any public or private (including religious) school. While Wisconsin has made great strides in lifting caps on the voucher program, only those at 185 percent of the federal poverty limit are eligible for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.

Despite universal voucher eligibility, the sky has not fallen on public schools in Sweden. The most robust academic study on Sweden’s voucher program, by Anders Bohlmark and Mikael Lindahl, finds that more competition between private and public schools leads to higher test scores for public schools. These findings are consistent with those of Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby’s study examining three choice programs in America — in Milwaukee, Arizona and Michigan — which found that metropolitan areas with maximum inter-district choice have consistently higher test scores than do areas with zero inter-district choice.

In the Netherlands, the same country that has legalized prostitution and cannabis consumption, a staggering 70 percent of all schools are private, 90 percent of which are religious. This is due to a vibrant, universal voucher program. Since 1985, the Dutch have had a “weighted” voucher program that allocates more funds to children from low-income families, children with disabilities and children with parents who have a low education level. This has helped close the achievement gap between poor and wealthy children.

In Chile, like in Netherlands and Sweden, public and private schools receive the exact same amount of funding per student. In other words, funding follows the student perfectly. More than 50 percent of children attend private schools. According to the 2012 Achievement Growth Study, published by scholars at Harvard and Stanford, the achievement gap between poor children and non-poor children has closed at an annual rate of 4 percent from 1999-2009 on international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

Sweden, the Netherlands, and Chile are just three examples of the many school choice programs around the world. Among the world’s 34 wealthiest countries, 25 have vouchers or tuition tax credits for students to attend private schools. The 2009 PISA exam, given to students in economically developed countries in mathematics, science and reading, reveal that private school students perform 25 points higher in reading than students who attend public schools.

To be sure, exporting other nations’ education systems to the U.S. is no simple matter. There are differences to consider in areas like culture, government and the economy. But a shake-up is required in the United States, and looking to other democratic countries as laborites of effective policy is a good way to discover what can improve policy here at home.

As a previous WILL report demonstrates, America spends more on education than nearly every other nation for, at best, mediocre student outcomes in comparison to our Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development peers. Is more vibrant school choice the answer? Perhaps. But what is clear is that what appears politically impossible here, i.e. universal voucher eligibility and money following the student, is feasible, common and successful in other parts of the world.

Bernie Sanders and I may not agree on much, but when it comes to education, his plea to look to Europe and Scandinavia to inform policy holds some merit.

Lexi Hudson is lead education policy analyst for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL).  Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.