In 1994, Speaker of the House Tom Foley, U.S. representative from Spokane, was against the ropes.

In a tough campaign for Democrats, talk radio and anger over unpopular policies fueled malicious attacks on the Speaker. Foley, who had served eastern Washington for 30 years, fell to the Republican revolution that fall. He graciously conceded to George Nethercutt Jr. ’67, but on his way out of office, Foley, long praised as a voice of bipartisanship and civility, bemoaned the rise of incivility and invective.

State Rep. Sam Hunt with Secretary of State Sam Reed
State Rep. Sam Hunt ‘67 (left) a Democrat from Olympia, talks with Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed ‘63, ‘68 (right). (Photo Robert Hubner)

“I think it’s very important to move the country forward and if you’re engaging in constant political bickering and political ambush back and forth, then it just becomes an election campaign that goes on forever,” Foley told his hometown newspaper The Spokesman-Review.

Ten years later, Washington’s Secretary of State Sam Reed (BA ’63, MA ’68) experienced some of the same invective during multiple recounts of the contentious 2004 gubernatorial race between Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi.

As the majority swung back and forth between Rossi and Gregoire and then on to multiple court cases, Reed became the target of two recall attempts and vicious attacks on his character and motivation—even from members of his own Republican party, who called him a “traitor”—as he ruled one way or the other on issues surrounding the election.

Recalling it now in his corner office of the capitol building, overlooking the state’s Temple of Justice, Reed talks about the experience of overseeing the closest governor’s race in U.S. history. (The race is recounted in An Election for the Ages, WSU Press 2010. Review in “New Media.”)

“The accusations they hurled, it was unbelievable how uncivil the discourse was,” says Reed. “It was on talk radio, it was on the blogs. It’s the kind of thing that was difficult to respond to because of the vile rhetoric.”

Reed sips water from a WSU alumni cup between meetings with legislators and describes the ultimate reaction after the election was settled. “A number of people would regularly stop me and thank me for not sinking into being narrowly partisan or trying to abuse my power to put my fingers on the scales one way or the other.”

After growing up in Wenatchee and Spokane, Reed began his four decades of public service as assistant secretary of state for Washington Secretaries of State Lud Kramer and Bruce Chapman, and then five terms as Thurston County auditor before being elected himself as secretary of state in 2000.

Speaking about the 1960s and ’70s, Reed says political leaders got along even when they were debating tough issues. “They would get out there on the floor and have some real rough and tumble debates. It’d be over, they’d go have a drink and talk about the wife and kids.”

Civility—what we consider respectful discussions among elected officials, the public, and others—certainly seems to be on the decline. Fights break out at health care forums, a Congressman yells “You lie!” at the president in the middle of a speech, harsh campaign ads accuse candidates of treason, rants on TV or blogs … all seem to point to a breakdown in civil debate.

What’s going on in our political conversation? Does this nastiness affect how people view their government and turn them away from getting involved, even when policies can have a profound effect on their lives? What about lawmakers?

That’s what WSU political science professor Nicholas Lovrich and psychology information systems coordinator Francis Benjamin ’06 wanted to find out with a comprehensive survey of civility, and perceptions of civility, in Washington’s Legislature.

The state of the state Legislature’s civility

Under the auspices of WSU’s Foley Institute, which is named for the former speaker of the House, Lovrich and Benjamin last year surveyed interns, current and former legislators, registered voters, lobbyists, and legislative staff on the level of civility and bipartisan collaboration, with plans to survey the capital press corps this year.

Lovrich presented the results at a packed forum in Olympia last February. The survey included responses from 141 current and former legislators, from a broad range of party affiliations and ideologies, gender, and geography.

Nearly 95 percent of legislators feel that bipartisan collaboration improves the effectiveness of the legislative process. But when legislators compared themselves to their peers, most said they worked in a more bipartisan manner than others.

“We asked legislators about their likelihood of engaging others and being collaborative, and many say, ‘I’m that way, but nobody else is’—kind of like the Lake Wobegon effect gone haywire,” says Lovrich.

Legislators also felt there was less cooperation than when they first started in the Legislature, a phenomenon, according to the survey results, that could be partly aggravated by full TV coverage of the Legislature’s business.

“With open access and TVW always there, there’s a change in inclination for legislators to stir up the pot. They’ll probably have an audience for it. It’ll make the news,” says Lovrich with a grim laugh.

Benjamin and Lovrich’s work found many legislators, as well as lobbyists and staff, discouraged by what they perceived as higher levels of distrust and less amity among colleagues.

For state Senator Linda Evans Parlette ’68, second-in-command in the Senate Republicans, the survey results confirm what she has learned in the Legislature. But she has a remedy: “It’s the relationships that you build on both sides of the aisle that enable you to be successful.”

Parlette, a pharmacist from Wenatchee who owns an orchard with her husband, has served in the Legislature since 1996. She started in politics as a concerned parent running for the school board in Chelan, then was asked to chair state Senator George Sellar’s campaign. She didn’t know him, but asking around, found out he was known as a man who worked with both sides of the aisle. That convinced her to eventually run herself.

To Parlette, civility applies not just to legislators, but to anyone who wants to change state law. “Sometimes groups bring in people from legislators’ districts and they train them to be hostile. My own constituents have been trained to get in my face and be disrespectful,” she says. “I have to step back and say, ‘Time out. I work for you.’”

As sunlight streams through the tall windows of her capitol office onto sofa pillows embroidered with elephants, Parlette shakes her head. “I’m passionate about what I’m doing. But I have to do it without shouting, and allow the other side to explain their viewpoint.”

Describing her recent work on a road to Cottonwood in the North Cascades, Parlette says she worked with environmental groups to make the road project happen and find common ground. “You have to lower the rhetoric, zero in on the issue in a normal volume. Anytime two people are yelling at each other, nobody wins. The battle is lost.”

State Representative Sam Hunt ’67, a Democrat who represents Olympia and parts of Lacey, has been around politics from when he put up signs for Governor Albert Rossellini in 1956. Elected to the Legislature in 2000, Hunt seconds Parlette’s thoughts on civility and effectiveness.

“Whenever I talk to a group that’s not normally around the Legislature, I tell them it’s not the Hatfields and McCoys. We get along, and there are Republicans I’d much rather have a beer with than Democrats. When the gavel sounds at the end of the day, we’re able to talk to each other, although it’s not as much as it used to be,” he says.

Hunt arrived in Olympia after a circuitous route beginning in Yakima. After graduating from West Valley High School—which, he points out, produced three legislators from his class of 1961—Hunt ended up in Pullman, where he earned his degree in English and education.

He also headed up WSU’s Young Democrats in the tumultuous late 1960s. Hunt describes the rise of disruptive radical elements among the Democrats, along with very conservative groups of Republicans attempting to take over the college Republican organization. “We had a mock political convention in 1964, and the chair of the Young Republicans was a young man named Sam Reed. Sam and I worked together and we ended up nominating Nelson Rockefeller.”

After teaching in Pasco and getting elected to city council there, Hunt worked on education issues in Olympia and then in D.C. for Senator Warren Magnuson. He returned to state government and has worked in and around the Legislature since 1981. In the House, he was Democratic floor leader—organizing votes and debate—and currently is chair of the state government and tribal affairs committee.

Now, sitting on his patio and thinking about effectiveness, Hunt says, “Inside the halls of the Legislature, even among the lobbyists, your word is your honor. You may get to make a mistake once, but once your word is abused, you’re done.”

Like Parlette, Hunt does see a rise in incivility in the public. “My email has turned nastier in the past couple of years. People email things I would hope they’d never say to your face, like ‘tax and spend Nazi,’” he says.

Hunt reflects on the longer mirror of history. “You read books like McCullough’s John Adams, and we are very tame. In those days it was blood and guts mudslinging. It’s nothing new.” As we talk, the familiar sounds of the Cougar fight song break out, and Hunt picks up his crimson Blackberry with a grin. It’s someone asking for campaign advice.

Before returning to WSU in 2008, I spent five years in Olympia working for the Legislature. Behind the scenes, staff, legislators, and others share a common jargon, such as “making sausage,” referring to creating policy and laws, or “inside baseball,” details of legislative processes that mean little to those outside the institution.

One of my favorites was “the bubble,” a sense that much of what happened in Olympia went unnoticed by the public. I discovered that a large portion of the public didn’t know much about the Legislature’s work and saw the institution as hopelessly mired in partisan conflict.

“I think the majority of voters don’t understand the process,” says Parlette. “They get little snippets of information from the radio and television, and it’s not totally in the context of the bigger picture.”

Of course, more vociferous legislators and others attract media attention with stunts and animosity. But from my experience, most issues taken up by the Legislature stopped short of violence or scurrilous attacks.

Not-so-happy days are here again

In the presidential campaign of 1828, enemies of Andrew Jackson accused him of committing multiple murders, “living in sin” with his wife Rachel, and being an uneducated backwoods hick. In turn, Jackson’s opponent John Quincy Adams faced outrageous reports that he procured American virgins for the Russian czar as part of his diplomatic duties.

On the floor of the Senate in 1856, South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks beat abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner with a cane until Sumner had to crawl out of the chamber blinded by his own blood. No one helped because Brooks’s companion held them at bay with a pistol. Sumner had earlier delivered an inflammatory speech that included such descriptions of pro-slavery senators as a “noisome, squat, and nameless animal … not a proper model for an American senator.”

U.S. history is littered with incidents of severe incivility, often in times when political consensus breaks down over major issues such as slavery. We may be facing such a time now, says Lovrich.

“Civility runs in cycles. We’ve been in a long cycle of tough issues with desegregation, unpopular wars, abortion—lots of issues that divide the parties in very deep ways, and factions within parties,” he says.

Officials in power have also defined “civility” in different ways, using it as a rhetorical tool to suppress legitimate debate. Groups such as suffragettes, early labor organizers, and civil rights protestors were sometimes accused of acting in “uncivil” ways.

New technology can be another aggravating factor. Jackson and Adams had to rely on broadsheets, posters, snuff tins, and match boxes to deliver their message. Today, blogs, YouTube, hundreds of TV channels, and social networks make it easy to spread a message without filters or accountability.

As those media proliferate, many people have their most frequent—and sometimes only—contact with politics through campaign advertising, the perennial cause of much fear and loathing.

Negative campaigns: the cause or the cure?

A major casualty of incivility is people turning away from the democratic process and forgoing participation even in such basic activities as voting. In the past, conventional wisdom blamed negative political advertising and campaigns.

“I’ve yet to see a poll where people say ‘We love political advertising! Give us more negative political ads,’” says Bruce Pinkleton, a professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, who has studied the effects of political advertising for more than a decade.

“Starting in the late ’90s, research here at Washington State and at Wisconsin really began to look at what negative political advertising is doing. A lot of people say negative political advertising is ruining democracy. It’s creating cynical citizens,” says Pinkleton. “If you’re cynical and distrusting of politicians and campaign attacks, does that mean you’re not necessarily going to vote?”

Using survey data over several election cycles, Pinkleton and WSU communication professor Erica Austin found that negative campaigns did not create apathy or cynicism in voters. Even those who grew disgusted with negative campaign ads did not stop voting or feel less effective in getting their voices heard.

Recent research by Pinkleton and Austin fine tunes analysis of people’s attitudes toward politics, specifically the difference between cynicism and skepticism. “If people are cynical, they tend to not use media. People who are cynical opt out of the political process. Skepticism we think of as less damaging,” says Pinkleton.

WSU political scientist Travis Ridout confirms Pinkleton and Austin’s results. In his office at the top of Johnson Tower, decorated with campaign bumper stickers stretching back decades and bobble-heads of past candidates, Ridout says, “A typical race’s negative ads are usually about issues that people deem legitimate. People probably won’t like them, but it’s probably not going to make them stay home on election day.”

He and fellow political scientists at Wisconsin and Vanderbilt used comprehensive information about campaign ads combined with surveys to determine people’s voting behavior and political participation.

“We have massive databases with perhaps 600,000 to 800,000 observations for presidential campaigns, and that same number for House and Senate races. We compare your level of exposure to that advert
ising and see if more exposure leads to more participation. In most cases, we find that’s the case,” says Ridout.

Plus, say both Ridout and Pinkleton, research shows people learn significantly more about candidates’ policies from negative ads.

“We know that negative ads contain more policy information. The positive ad is, ‘Here’s my beautiful family. I represent Eastern Washington values. Vote for me,’” says Ridout. “The negative ad is, ‘My opponent supports BP and I voted to take away their tax breaks.’ Now we know where the candidate stands on issues. That’s more helpful in making a vote than knowing this person has Eastern Washington values.”

Negative advertising, accurate or not, also raises the stakes with jarring music and stark images accompanying ominous narratives, which pushes more people to participate in the democratic process.

“‘Life as we know it will end if my opponent gets elected.’ Wow. I better get out and vote, because the environmentalists or the oil companies will be running the country if I don’t, whatever your point of view might be,” says Ridout.

Both Ridout and Pinkleton say the media share some responsibility to better inform the public and compensate for the negative campaign ads.

“If you or I were looking for substantive information on foreign policy or health care related issues, we’d be very frustrated by the sensationalist, horse race coverage,” says Pinkleton.

Ridout agrees. “I found some Senate races where a third of the newspaper articles about the campaign mentioned the political advertising of the candidates. Advertising really drives that media agenda,” he says. “They’re portraying the campaign as a game, as a race, as a war—who’s going to win, who’s going to lose.”

As an example, Ridout describes the complicity of the media in spreading negative messages from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against John Kerry in 2004. “Most of us can’t even remember the content of those ads, but it spawned an awful lot of media attention. It hijacked the media narrative for two or three weeks and was very effective in that regard,” he says.

At the same time, pundits and media decry the demise of civility. “I don’t think I’ve seen a campaign that wasn’t ‘the most negative on record.’ Journalists repeat it like it’s a mantra,” says Pinkleton.

Not all negative ads are created equal, however. Austin and Pinkleton further broke down the effect of different types of negative ads into “mudslinging” personal attacks versus ads that compared candidates.

“If you look carefully,” says Pinkleton, “You’ll see a number of ads that, instead of just saying ‘Bruce Pinkleton is a boozing womanizer,’ they might say ‘Let’s compare the candidates.’ The attacking candidate will come out as brilliant and trustworthy, and Bruce Pinkleton comes across as a boozing womanizer, soft on crime, against education, and all those things that people are for.

“That comparative strategy, according to our research, is less damaging to the sponsoring candidate than just a purely negative attack strategy.”

Sam Hunt, who helps coordinate campaigns in addition to his work as a legislator, agrees with Pinkleton’s assessment. “Some people say if you run a negative campaign, that’s wrong. Well, if I’m running against an incumbent, I have to give reasons why this time they should vote for me and not mark that oval for the other candidate,” says Hunt.

Both Hunt and Parlette point to negative ads produced by non-campaign groups, like the swift boat ads, as a principal cause of egregious mudslinging.

Hunt says the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing more independently created political ads will increase the hostility. “Those ads are more vindictive and uncivil than what a candidate would run. We’ll see buildings crumbling because someone didn’t vote right, and people will be deluged by those ads on their TV screens.”

The state Supreme Court’s decision to allow falsehoods in campaign advertising leads to further negativity and distrust, says Parlette, but the candidate is ultimately responsible. “When you see third party groups doing ads, the question is, did the candidate know about it? If the candidates aren’t happy, they can stop it.”

Despite the reservations, another truism I often heard in Olympia was “negative advertising works,” and it does seem to work in driving up interest and involvement.

“The bigger issue is what is the sum total of all these negative political campaigns doing to the American public as far as their desire to participate in the political process,” says Pinkleton. “The answer so far is that negative political advertising is not driving down political participation.”

Mud sticks to the capitol walls

More members of the public may vote when exposed to negative political advertising, but the detrimental effect on newly elected legislators can reverberate as they enter the legislative arena.

“The more hostile the campaign, the less civil they feel the legislative process was,” says Benjamin. “We feel people are carrying over that hostility, so when they start the legislative process they’re holding back rather than building relationships.”

The Foley Institute’s survey of legislators showed a range of campaign experiences from benign to hostile, which colored their perception of the other party when they arrived at the Legislature. Those legislators who faced tough attacks were not as interested in collaborating on policy issues with members of the other party.

“When we talked about elections and negative campaigning, the boomerang effect long after those elections are over was a dramatic finding to me,” says Lovrich.

Specific training and awareness spurred by the Foley Institute’s survey may help alleviate some of the tensions in transitioning from campaign to statehouse.

“Our recommendation is to take advantage of that new legislator training, so they let go of the election and treat the process as totally separate from the election,” says Benjamin. “There are a number of techniques within psychology for building civility, collaboration, and group interaction. It’s just whether you can get legislators to participate in those activities,” he laughs.

A new hope for civility

Despite negative campaigns, heated rhetoric, and activism without respect, Pinkleton sees hope for American democracy.

“For over 200 years, we’ve been able to transfer power through peaceful means. If the worse we suffer is negative political advertising, that really isn’t a terrible price to pay,” he says. “I have a lot of optimism that the American people can see through the deceit and political advertising that is less true, and participate and make informed decisions.”

Lovrich says it’s more important than ever to encourage collaboration. “We probably have a very bumpy road ahead on financing state government. We also have tons of history as a forward-looking and collaborative state, and we have a lot riding on the belief that you should bring everyone together, however diverse.”

He points out a model for encouraging this civility: “Tom Foley and Sam Reed view public service as a high obligation regardless of party. When you’re there, the people’s business requires you to be not only civil to each other but cooperate where the public requires cooperation.”

Reed, who received a Gonzaga University law medal and a public official of the year award from Governing magazine because of his role in the 2004 election, believes fairness and civility can lead to rewards down the road for elected officials.

“Just because someone may disagree with you, or even beat you on this issue and get more votes, don’t let it hurt your feelings. Next time around this person may be right at your side,” he says.

In Foley’s biography, Honor in the House (WSU Press 1999), the former Congressman also pondered the best way to create public policy:

“I always thought … that the best argument for the party, except for the most committed and knee-jerk Democrats, was to emphasize where we wanted to go with policy, and that we were willing to cooperate… rather than to just embrace bombast and mindlessly blast away.”

Web extra

Gallery: Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed’s office

On the web

WSU Professor Co-directs Wesleyan Media Initiative to Analyze Political Advertising (WSU Research News, Sept. 27, 2010)

The Thomas S. Foley Institute at WSU

Washington Secretary of State’s Office

Washington State Legislature

Watch “Civility in Politics” forum (Feb. 5, 2010 on TVW, Washington’s public affairs television channel)

Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor (Pew Research Center report on public attitudes toward government, April 18, 2010)

Follow the Bouncing Ballot: A Seismograph of Washington Politics, 1851-2005 (Walt Crowley, History Link)