Herbst, Susan. Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Friedman, Barry D.
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Spring-Summer, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 1-2
Topic: NamedWork: Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Herbst, Susan
Accession Number: 263035414
Full Text: 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 address at the University of Notre Dame in which he discussed methods for resolving difficult issues--such as abortion policy--considerately. She assigns 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin to be her poster girl for incivility, noting, for example, her forceful expressions of opposition to the health-care reform proposals of Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress. Herbst is correct in observing that the president is most effective when he offers conciliation to audiences, while Palin's skill lies in serving the "red meat" that provokes right-wing Americans to turn out for political events and work to advance the fortunes of Tea Party candidates.

Although Herbst portrays her analysis as empirical, the discussion is predominately philosophical. Her anecdotal evidence comes from her examination of videos of speeches at campaign events, issue-oriented meetings and rallies, and other public gatherings. One of the five chapters--Chapter 4--reports the results of a survey of students in Georgia's public-university system, but, while this is an interesting portrait of students' opinions about civil and uncivil rhetoric in the classroom and elsewhere on college campuses, the survey data are tangential to the rest of the book's undertaking. By and large, the book is driven by Herbst's own logic, which will help readers develop their own opinions about whether incivility has, as conventional wisdom now contends, destructively engulfed the nation's political rhetoric.

Barry D. Friedman, PhD

Professor of Political Science

North Georgia College & State University

Dahlonega, Georgia
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.