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John Patrick Leary: Against Civility

November 16, 2012

Concerns over declining 'civility' in politics distract us from the meaningful disagreements that we need to have.

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Image from Flickr via Ed Gaillard

By John Patrick Leary

In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, it was popular for liberal commentators on NPR and the New York Times editorial page to lament the supposed decline of “civility” in politics. The Times editorial page recently noted with sincere regret that something called the “Civility Caucus” in Congress—intended to cultivate bipartisan cooperation—has only gathered seven members in 14 years. Why, these lamenters ask in mournful tones, has our political culture—by which they mean, of course, politicians and talking heads on cable—become so uncivil? In one of the false equivalences that characterize our news media, “both sides” of the “aisle” are equally hostile to opposing views. (Of course, there are only two “sides” and one “aisle,” and all other possibilities beyond the American two-party system, and consequently other metaphors, are excluded.) Both MSNBC and Fox are guilty, one earnest journalist said on NPR recently, for inflaming passions among their viewers and failing to seek out common ground. Another wistfully regretted the fact that in Michigan, where I live, legislators no longer “go out for a beer” together after a long day of work, the way they used to. But it’s perplexing that anyone not in the business of selling cocktails to state senators would wax nostalgic for such an obvious symbol of backslapping, old-boy clubbiness.

Liberal fans of “civility” refer to the hostile “tone” of party politics, but they seem at some level to object to the form of party politics itself.

The supposedly coarse partisanship of the political process, which (surprise!) increases during election season, is criticized for debasing the democratic disagreement, which, from one point of view, it might exemplify. Yet complaints about incivility have been around for years. As Charles P. Pierce pointed out in a spirited denunciation in Esquire of liberal Time pundit Joe Klein’s call for civility, the 1836 gag rule on slavery in the House of Representatives was justified by southern legislators as restoring decorum to an unruly, divided chamber. Recent reports have blamed incivility on Twitter. Deeper thinkers have blamed the 1970s and social media at the same time.

The liberal call for a return to “civility” is both wrong-headed and anti-democratic for at least three reasons. First, nobody really knows what it means—is it decorum? A political point of view, like bipartisanship? Old-fashioned etiquette? Secondly, it’s a fantasy—nostalgia for a lost era of quaint collegiality and friendly rivalry that has never really existed in a country whose sitting vice president once assassinated Alexander Hamilton for writing a critical letter about him. Cable news, for example, may change the volume and frequency of inter-party argument, but Congress was hardly a polite debating society before Fox entered the scene. And lastly, it never should have been. Liberal fans of “civility” refer to the hostile “tone” of party politics, but they seem at some level to object to the form of party politics itself. When the New York Times greets the retirement of Olympia Snowe, the well-known “moderate” Republican Senator, by mourning the poor showing of the Civility Caucus, the implicit point seems to be that sharp political conflict is itself uncivil. The editorial board writes, “What sounds like a tall order for Capitol Hill — civility — is being increasingly invoked now that actual bipartisanship seems as distant as Pluto:” conflating a tone—“civility”—with a political point of view and nebulous virtue—that of bipartisan “moderation.” A recent survey by Allegheny College on incivility in politics was tellingly named the “Survey of Civility and Compromise,” confusing the tenor and style of disagreement with disagreement itself. A timely primer by P.M. Forni—a Johns Hopkins professor and much-cited author of numerous books on civility—offers readers tips on avoiding uncivil political arguments at work. The takeaway? Never talk about politics at work.

The desire for civil discourse in mainstream politics conceals a deeper desire for a politics of consensus, with no major points of either ideological or practical disagreement.

The desire for civil discourse in mainstream politics conceals a deeper desire for a politics of consensus, with no major points of either ideological or practical disagreement. In this view, politics becomes simply a process of managing government bureaucracy; fundamental social conflicts do not exist, only rhetorical ones do. So when an NAACP audience booed Mitt Romney—standard-bearer of a nearly all-white party that has recently devoted itself to minority vote suppression—there was a pundit there to wag his finger at the “incivility” of it all.

The supposed crisis of “civility” today is actually a red herring, meant to distract us from real social conflict. It is therefore a natural subject for media that thrives on both superficial conflict and pious moralizing. Lamentations about rising “incivility,” in fact, obscure the broad alignment that exists between the two major parties. One peculiar contradiction of established political rhetoric in America today is the celebration, on the one hand, of “competition” as a moral virtue in the economy, but as a vice in political life. Any discussion of Washington’s supposed incivility carries with it the sense that angry tones or empty barstools on Capitol Hill portend social breakdown and an intractably divided government. Behind the façade of uncivil politicking, though, is currently a battle over which party will sacrifice more of the New Deal legacy most energetically. What we need, then, is more angry “incivility”—honest disagreement, unreasonable indignation, and the willingness to defend a vision of political possibility beyond the sanctimonious noise of the election-time media circus.


John Patrick Leary teaches American literature at Wayne State University in Detroit and is completing a book, A Cultural History of Underdevelopment: Latin America in the American Imagination. He is the author of “Detroitism” in Guernica.

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