This is kind of cheating, but we've been slow on posts lately, so I'm going for it anyway. Here's the text version of a talk I gave to the local League of Women Voters earlier this week. I'm sure you'll find lots to object to, you fish-eyed, Palin-brained, stink hounds. So enjoy.
I’d like to thank the League of Women Voters for inviting me to speak to you today on the topic of civility in public discourse, a virtue that has been in seemingly short supply recently. Before I begin, out of curiosity, let me ask, how many of you are concerned about a loss of civility in American political discourse? Why? So what, then, qualifies as “civility”? Is it politeness, or respect, or tolerance, or merely a good faith adherence to fair play and human decency?
The concept itself, you may be surprised to learn, is relatively recent—a product of the modern age and its celebration of “civil society” (a notion going back to the Renaissance of the 15th century). The ancients did not discuss “civility” as a characteristic of republican government. Aristotle, for example, the greatest Greek expounder of citizenship and its virtues comes closest to it when he briefly discusses the “concord” that arises “when people agree about what is beneficial, rationally choose the same things, and carry out common resolutions
” (172). He contrasts this with “civil strife” and notes that concord, as a kind of political friendship, can only exist “among good people.” But this doesn’t seem to be exactly what we’re looking for, since we’re seeking an attitude of respect that exists primarily in cases of good faith disagreement about what goods ought to be sought in the public realm. Indeed, Aristotle seems to presume, probably naively, a world where all good people will agree about what the good things are, thus making such healthy disagreements unnecessary.
In the 18th century (1742), the Scottish philosopher David Hume discussed civility in more detail, defining it as a “mutual deference. . . which leads us to resign our own inclinations to those of our companion, and to curb and conceal that presumption and arrogance, so natural to the human mind
.” Interestingly, Hume argues that civility is primarily found in monarchies and their courts, where “politeness of manners
” and hierarchical respect are the standard expectations. In republics, by contrast, “such refinements of civility are apt to be little practiced
,” since popular equality and utility are the guiding ideals. Gently chiding Europe’s two working republics, he notes that “the good-manners of a Swiss civilized in Holland
” is a French joke about the boorish rubes to their east and north (126-7).
Fittingly, Benet Davetian, Director of the Civility Institute (Canada), and author of the epic Civility: A Cultural History
, argues that the concern for “civility” (from Latin civis
, or “city”) arises in the Renaissance as a way of fostering a more cosmopolitan and egalitarian counterpart to medieval “courtesy.” But as Hume’s comment indicates, it takes centuries before civility will throw off its medieval association with patterns of hierarchy and deference.
Indeed, it may NEVER have fully done so. As a more contrarian scholar of civility, James Schmidt of Boston Univ., has detailed, the teenage George Washington learned his rules of civility from a 16th century French book of courtly manners. Along with dictates about not crossing your legs and how to kill bugs without anyone noticing, the manual spent an excessive amount of time on rules governing relations with social betters and lessers (how to tip your hat, when to start eating your meat, etc.). It’s hard to see what any of this has to contribute to improving political discourse in a pluralistic democratic society. Indeed, we might worry that civility can be a tool that elites use to conceal conflict and artificially constrain debate. GWash himself practiced a kind of pre-partisan politics that assumed that a president would be able to rise above factional disputes to govern as a “patriot king.” No subsequent president has ever had such a luxury—nor, arguably, should they.
Indeed, almost immediately after Washington left office, partisan combat began, peaking in the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The Jeffersonian press accused Adams of being “a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who wants to start a war with France. . . [is] importing mistresses from Europe and trying to marry his sons to the daughters of George III.”
He is, they said, a “hideous, hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman
.” Meanwhile, Federalists claimed that “if Jefferson is elected, murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly talked and practiced. . . [and] the soil will be soaked with blood
.” Not to be outdone in ad hominem, they dubbed Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father
. . .[and] raised on hoe cakes
.” Today’s invective may be more pervasive, but it is certainly less creative.
On the other hand, there are certainly many disturbing examples of uncivil behavior today: cable news hosts who yell at each other across the dial; Tea Party protestors who carry assault weapons or wave signs that equate the president with Hitler and Stalin; venomous e-mails that accuse the president of being a Muslim and an illegal alien with a missing (or forged) birth certificate; TV hosts who threaten physical violence on reporters they dislike [O’Reilly toward Dana Milbank; also note Zell Miller vs. Chris Matthews], or simulate the poisoning of former Speaker Pelosi [Glenn Beck]; national party leaders who outline “guerrilla tactics” to bring down their opponents [GOP powerpoint, via NYT], or scream their pride to be a “party of Hell No!!” [Palin, Boehner], and “you lie!” [Joe Wilson]; and governors who threaten nullification or even secession if they dislike federal policies [Rick Perry (TX), Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (TN), etc.].
There have even been acts of political violence inspired by these intemperate voices: the gunman at the Holocaust Museum in DC; the listener Glenn Beck inspired to go shoot up the offices of the ACLU and the Tides Foundation in SF (caught in a shootout with police before he could get there); the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in Wichita; and even an attack on a Unitarian Church in Knoxville (David Adkisson killed two people by shotgun, hoping to target Democrats, 7/08). Not to forget the small acts of intimidation and disrespect: the protesters who spat at members of the Congressional Black Caucus [Emanuel Cleaver, John Lewis] while yelling racial epithets; the routine demonization of political opponents as “socialists” and “fascists”; the racist billboards put up across the country to decry Mexicans, Muslims, and President Obama. These measures also SEEM to be having a debilitating effect on our government. Mired in the worst economy since the Great Depression, our leaders in Washington appear incapable of any serious compromise, and lawmaking is blocked at every turn by obstructionist tactics: filibusters, anonymous holds, pointless hearings, backroom negotiations that go nowhere, etc., etc.
If you find these incidents to be matters of concern, I have good news and bad news for you—I’ll start with the BAD: at least in the near term, civility in politics is likely to decay and continue to decay for a long time, and there is very little that any of us can do about it. It doesn’t really matter what we teach at college, or in the public schools, or in our civic groups. The reason is simple: the recent decay of civility is not educational or accidental, it is structural and intentional, and the forces that drive it are intensifying rather than weakening. Since politics is driven by interests rather than by abstract philosophical commitments, the incentives toward polarization and demonization will, for the foreseeable future, remain much stronger than are those toward moderation and accommodation. Indeed, even the best-intentioned attempt to restore civility may be counterproductive because, paradoxically, such an effort would play into the hands of the forces of incivility.
More directly, civility has NOT disappeared as part of some generalized, civilizational decay. It has been crushed as part of an overt political strategy for gaining and holding power. If this were a who-dunnit, the crime would be murder and, as all of the evidence in the examples above clearly show, the killer would be. . . the Republican Party. Now, describing the death of civility as a “murder” is a bit melodramatic. Those of us who study politics have an obligation to be analytical rather than emotional about these matters, so allow me to explain.
Partisan competition in a democracy tends to be “asymmetrical.” By which I mean that the competing parties have different and often antithetical interests, which means they will take dramatically divergent stances toward our governing institutions and the norms by which they operate. It is often noted that Republicans, unlike Democrats, engage in voter suppression tactics: hassling voters for ID in Dem-leaning precincts, distributing fliers in inner city neighborhoods reminding people to “Vote this Wednesday!” or to pay all outstanding tickets and clear any outstanding warrants first. This year, GOP backed groups ran radio and TV ads telling Latinos NOT to vote (send Harry Reid a message!). There is no counterpart on the other side of the aisle. Democrats do not patrol the precincts of Williamson County trying to trick wealthy white people out of voting. But there’s an obvious reason for this—when voter turnout goes up, Dems tend to DO BETTER since “registered voters” consistently poll more Democratic than do “likely voters.” So Dems have an interest
in mobilization, Repubs in suppression. It is hard to give Democrats moral credit for behavior from which they reap disproportionate benefit.
Civility is a similar phenomenon. Much of this relates to the changing dynamics of the American two party system over the last half century. For more than a century following the Civil War, the lines of division between the parties were more historical and organizational (based in patronage) than ideological: you had both liberal and conservative Democrats, and both liberal and conservative Republicans. But as politics becomes increasingly nationalized in the 20th century, the parties “sort out” on ideological grounds.
Conservative southern Dems migrate to the GOP, and progressive Teddy Roosevelt or Nelson Rockefeller Republicans flock to the Dems. As of 2009, the most liberal member of the GOP was more conservative than the most conservative Dem in both houses of Congress.
Republicans have seen a distinct advantage in this environment. Polls of American ideological preferences have consistently shown that roughly twice as many voters identify as “conservative” rather than “liberal” (Gallup: 1992: 17/36; 2009: 21/40). As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in their exceptional study, Off Center
(2005), Republicans going back to at least Newt Gingrich and the GOP takeover of Congress in 1995 saw polarization as a path to power. The electorate is NOT, as we often think a “normal” bell curve where the action is in the center. It is “bimodal,” and if you can polarize the debate by stigmatizing your opponents as morally perverse and dangerously un-American, you can reap huge rewards. No one practiced this technique better than the man called “Bush’s Brain”: Karl Rove. His goal was to use polarization to create an enduring pro-Wall Street GOP majority, much like McKinley’s from the 1890s. So he aggressively courted the right-wing base and painted his opponents as perverts, traitors, and terrorist sympathizers.
Furthermore, FOX News and talk radio allow conservatives to cultivate a militant “bunker of Doom” (as Colbert called it) mentality that liberals, who generally prefer the balanced, informational approach of NPR or PBS, cannot match. After all, Democrats must win by stitching together liberals and moderates, so their efforts to counter-mobilize will usually fall short. Nonetheless, with MSNBC and the internet, they are trying, but it is not an equal terrain. We might also note that the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC
allows wealthy GOP donors to dump millions of dollars into anonymous attack ads, which by a 9:1 margin this year went to slamming Democratic congressional candidates as Pelosi-loving, America-hating socialists. Since Dems typically depend on a broader but poorer donor base, they will likely prove unable to match that onslaught.
Finally, note the ideological differences. Liberals believe in democracy and the benefits of “good government.” So when they lose an election, they are most likely to submit and accept the popular verdict, allowing the GOP to govern (mostly) as they see fit. But Republicans don’t like government, and distrust democracy, which is little more than a tool of power. So they have no trouble burning down the house when they’re in the minority—the worse government works, the better for them politically
. Ironically, their lack of sentimentality for democracy often makes them more effective practitioners of it.
So, what’s the GOOD news? This may come as weak consolation, but, historically speaking, civility has been (at best) an intermittent quality of American democracy—as the earlier example from 1800 showed. We have survived even less civil periods in the past and we’re likely to survive this uncivil moment as well. And Republicans are right to see civility as, at best, an instrumental good, a means to an end. As a virtue, I certainly value civility less than justice or integrity. Earlier in this decade, the demand for civility hushed disputes over the election recount of 2000 and the war in Iraq, debates that we would have been better off having, even if they were not civil. It is no accident that the most famously “civil” region in America is the South, with its history of quasi-aristocracy and racial hierarchy.
Interestingly, Andre Comte-Sponville, whose A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues
(2001) is one of the best recent books on the topic of virtue, analyzes 18 virtues, none of which is “civility.” The closest he gets is “politeness,” which he describes as the first virtue, while noting that it may NOT even BE a virtue, but instead a childlike precondition of virtue—the imitation of virtue without the possession of it. After all, by itself, politeness is vacuous. Is a Nazi any better for being polite? No, in fact, his politeness makes his barbarous behavior seem even more offensive for its hypocrisy. Like politeness, which is part of civility if not its whole, civility runs the risk of being empty—an enforced set of manners that serves no higher cause, whether justice or compassion or truth. The problem with Republicans today is NOT that they are uncivil. It is that their incivility serves no virtue higher than their own self-interested quest for power.
IF I object to the Tea Party it is less because they are uncivil and more because they are insane
, spouting nonsense and slander with the angry confidence of the fanatic. I object not to their style, but to their substance. Asking them to be civil will not resolve that issue or improve our discourse. Calling them out as intolerant, and fighting the institutional structures that give them succor will be a far more effective strategy. But it will not exactly be “civil.”