Civility in the U.S. is worse today compared to 10 years ago, according to 85% of respondents to the American Bar Association’s Survey of Civic Literacy 2023.
A significant number of respondents attribute the decrease in civility to social media, media, and public officials, and believe that family and friends and public officials should be primarily responsible for improving civility in our society.
The survey collected responses from 1,000 people in the U.S. and was released to mark Law Day, which is celebrated on May 1. The survey also accessed Americans’ civic knowledge.
During a virtual panel discussion that explored the survey results, ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross emphasized the importance of civics education and noted that the ABA is encouraging “the legal profession to lead the way in promoting civics, civility and collaboration to restore confidence in our democratic institutions and the judicial system and to protect the rule of law.”
Enix-Ross, who recently spoke on responding to incivility at the Commission on Professionalism’s 2023 Future Is Now: Legal Services conference, went on to say, “Learning how our government works and developing an understanding of these three great cornerstones of democracy inevitably will help us build a better society.”
Civility in the U.S.
Just 6% of respondents said that civility in today’s society is better than it was 10 years ago. When asked what is responsible for “eroding civility in our society,” the majority of respondents answered social media (29%), media (24%), and public officials (19%). Just two percent blamed the courts.
The majority of respondents said that friends/family (34%), public officials (27%), and community leaders (11%) should take the lead in improving civility. Ninety percent said that instilling civility in children begins with parents and family.
“Lawyers often serve as elected officials and leaders in their communities, places of worship, schools, professional groups, and other spaces,” said Stephanie Villinski, Deputy Director of the Commission on Professionalism and member of the ABA Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility, and Collaboration Commission. “For the benefit of our communities, the legal profession, and the rule of law, it is important that lawyers model civility and respect for everyone they come in contact with, both inside and outside their workplaces.”
Assessing civics knowledge
In addition to questions about civility, the survey asked 14 multiple-choice questions based on the current U.S. Naturalization Test to measure knowledge of government and U.S. democracy. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they did not think people were very informed about how the government works and 17% said people were not informed at all.
Half of respondents knew that serving on a federal jury is a responsibility that is only for U.S. citizens and 69% correctly said each of the three branches of government can check the powers of the other two — the highest percentage recorded since 2020.
Importantly, 84% correctly responded that the term “rule of law” means no one is above the law.
Finally, the survey asked whether respondents want their government officials to hold their ground or compromise in general and on several specific issues including social security and gun rights. Seventy-nine percent said that generally, they would like their government leaders to work toward compromise.
Civility among Illinois lawyers
The Commission on Professionalism’s 2021 Survey on Professionalism collected results from a randomized sample of more than 1,500 Illinois attorneys across practice areas on their experiences with civility and professionalism in their workplaces and as individuals.
The survey found that incivility among Illinois lawyers is decreasing, with the percentage of lawyers who said they have experienced incivility from another attorney in the past 6 months dropping more than 30% compared to the Commission’s 2014 Survey on Professionalism. However, issues of incivility tied to race, age, and sex grew significantly.
While the Commission’s survey did not explicitly ask about the responsibility for improving civility, the survey asked about how workplace culture contributed toward overall civility and professionalism.
Eighty-three percent said their workplace cultivates a culture where people of all backgrounds are welcomed and valued. However, just 63% of respondents said their organization always takes strict action against intolerance and discrimination.
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