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Civility Breakdown Undermining America’s Democracy, Expert Tells Kansas Audience

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, says the war of words in politics is a threat to American democracy. She spoke this week at the University of Kansas.

Progressives deride supporters of President Donald Trump as willfully ignorant reactionaries, even racists.

Fans of the president respond in kind, dismissing liberals as snowflakes and worse.

The escalating war of words is a clear and present danger to American democracy, said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, in a presentation sponsored by the Topeka-based Sunflower Foundation’s Advocacy in Health speaker series.

“Civility is an essential ingredient in a free democracy,” Lukensmeyer said Wednesday to an audience at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “Our system is dependent on the capacity to absorb, assimilate and productively deal with difference.”

Incivility leads to certain groups of people being treated as “others to the point we don’t respect them as human beings,” she said.

Lukensmeyer, who holds a doctorate in organizational behavior, is a former White House consultant and chief of staff to former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste, a Democrat who served from 1983 to 1991.

The current level of hostility in the nation’s political discourse rivals that of the Civil War era, Lukensmeyer said, warning that it will take decades to rebuild the social norms being destroyed in the wake of Trump’s election.

“Seventy-five percent of Americans believe that incivility is now a crisis, and about the same number believe it’s lowering our stature around the world,” Lukensmeyer said.

The ocean of special interest money in American politics and the gerrymandering of congressional districts have created structural barriers to solving the incivility crisis at the national level, Lukensmeyer said. But, she said, individuals and communities can and must start tackling the problem on their own.

“The one thing we all can control is how we behave in our own lives,” Lukensmeyer said, noting that in addition to providing civility training to state lawmakers across the country, the institute she heads has developed toolkits to help individuals and groups engage more productively.

One of the “conversation kits” available on the institute’s website is designed to help families navigate potentially fraught discussions at the Thanksgiving table. Called “Setting the Table for Civility,” the kit aims to promote respect over the upcoming holiday season by helping people with disparate views talk and, more importantly, listen to one another.


Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.