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Will the National Partisan Breakdown Infect Our Communities?

Discourse remains mostly civil at the local level, a Michigan survey finds, but there are some red flags.

American politics appears to have hit a modern low point, one where opponents are demonized, competitors are now enemies and debate often amounts to shouting matches and Twitter insults. Even worse, politically driven violence is rising, marked most recently by the gunshot wounding of a Republican senator practicing for a congressional baseball game, pipe bombs mailed to Democratic opponents of President Trump and the massacre of 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Most of us understand that our country is on a bad path. The 2018 Civility in America survey found 69 percent of Americans believing that incivility is a major problem. The survey, conducted for the Weber Shandwick public-affairs firm, also reported that the frequency of uncivil encounters respondents reported experiencing had risen significantly since 2016.

Of course, some might question whether civility should even be an explicit goal in today's environment, when large numbers of citizens feel that their constitutionally guaranteed rights are under assault and calls for civil discourse may feel like an effort to simply divert attention. Nonetheless, it is hard to see a sustainable future for American democracy if we get to the point where no one seeks common ground, where there are only enemies to be defeated, and where civility has devolved to pure hostility at all levels of governance.

So now, while partisan battles rage over heated national topics such as immigration, health care and the environment, the question of local democracy becomes ever more acute. Are local politics becoming infected with the same kind of hostility that seems to be engulfing national politics and even some of our state capitols?

To investigate this question, last year the Michigan Public Policy Survey, which is conducted by the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, asked local-government leaders across Michigan about the state of civic discourse on local policy issues in their communities. The questions looked at discourse among local elected officials, between officials and residents, and, finally, among residents themselves.

The survey found mostly good news, but it also uncovered early warning signs that should be monitored going forward. While the survey was limited to Michigan, it seems reasonable to suspect that similar dynamics could be playing out in other states' local governments.

First, the good news. Overall, 71 percent of Michigan's local leaders report that discourse among elected officials on local policy issues is generally constructive today, while just 8 percent say it is divisive and 20 percent say it is mixed -- that is, sometimes constructive and sometimes divisive. The percentages are similar when it comes to discourse between local officials and residents. And perhaps most encouraging, these percentages have barely changed compared with an earlier survey, conducted in 2012. This appears to show that the worsening national conditions haven't yet pushed local politics over the partisan edge, at least in Michigan.

But the survey did spot some red flags, too. Discourse among leaders and between leaders and residents was reported to be somewhat worse in Michigan's larger communities, the types of places with more heterogeneous populations, where values and viewpoints are more diverse. In the largest jurisdictions, 60 percent of local elected leaders say discourse among their colleagues in local government is constructive while 16 percent say it is divisive and 24 percent say it is mixed.

More worrisome are local leaders' views about discourse among residents in their communities. Overall, just 38 percent say resident discourse is generally constructive, while 11 percent say it is divisive and 39 percent say it is mixed. And most worrisome of all, in Michigan's largest, most diverse communities just 28 percent of local leaders say discourse among residents is constructive, while 20 percent say it is divisive and 46 percent say it is mixed. These are numbers to keep an eye on.

But the survey produced at least one surprise. The more worrisome numbers for discourse among residents in 2018 were actually an improvement compared with the 2012 survey: While 38 percent of local leaders overall reported generally constructive resident discourse in 2018, that was up from 30 percent in 2012.

So while Washington, D.C., breaks down along hardened and harshened partisan lines, there is evidence from Michigan that civility at the grass roots of American democracy is still mostly intact. But at the same time there is reason to be concerned, especially in regard to how citizens conduct themselves in discussing local policy issues among themselves. If local politics in our biggest cities takes a turn for the worse, it might not take much to push local democracy over the partisan cliff. Local-government leaders should take care to nurture and model civil discourse, and to monitor the civic health of their communities.

Associate director of the University of Michigan's Center for Local, State and Urban Policy
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