Is civility in America really dead?

Is civility in America really dead?
© Getty Images

Is civility in America really dead? I am not fully convinced it is. Indeed, we have reached a point where our rhetoric has become so much more polarizing and our willingness to disagree without being disagreeable has certainly dissipated. We are certainly at a place where neither side is very willing to work with the other toward a shared interest, but we have definitely seen a lot worse in the history of country.

Congresswoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersFormer top Dem: Not every candidate should run on impeaching Trump Hoping to catch fire, House Dems eye White House House passes bipartisan bill to boost business investment MORE (D-Calif.) who is ardently opposed to President TrumpDonald John TrumpIran claims it rejected Trump meeting requests 8 times ESPY host jokes Putin was as happy after Trump summit as Ovechkin winning Stanley Cup Russian ambassador: Trump made ‘verbal agreements’ with Putin MORE and his policies, urged supporters at a recent political rally to confront Trump administration officials wherever they are. “Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up and if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere. We’ve got to get the children connected to their parents,” she said.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obviously, this was not the best advice to give people who are already ginned up with anger and frustration. It goes against former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama launches voter registration initiative ahead of midterms: report Dems look for candidate who will punch Trump ‘square in the face’ Queen Elizabeth wore brooch from Obamas on the day Trump arrived in the UK: reports MORE’s mantra of “when they go low, we go low.” However, this did not start with Waters. A recent Marist Poll indicates that a majority of Americans think our level of incivility has gotten worse under Trump, but when you dive deeper and look at the tribal nature of politics today, both sides blame each other for the destruction of our national discourse.

From the president encouraging supporters at rallies during his candidacy to “knock the crap out of him, would you? I promise you, I will pay your legal fees” to political analysts on the left and the right on cable news screaming at one another, it is clear that we have reached a new low.

However, that does not necessarily mean civility is dead. In fact, there are instances in our nation’s history where things were a lot worse. In 1854, Congressman William Churchwell and Congressman William Cullom had an explosive argument on the floor of the House that nearly turned deadly. The argument started when both men were debating a slavery bill and Churchwell alleged that Cullom defended the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The debate got so heated that Cullom lurched at Churchwell, who reached for a gun in his pocket. The incident ultimately ended after Congressman Burton Craige grabbed the pistol to avert disaster.

In 1838, Congressman Jonathan Cilley was killed by Congressman Williams Graves in a fatal gun duel. The duel was the result of Graves approaching Cilley at the behest James Webb, a newspaper editor, who was furious about with Cilley for accusing him of bribery on the House floor. When Cilley refused to accept the letter, Graves interpreted it as an insult to his character and challenged Cilley to a duel. During their third round, which was beyond the customary two rounds, Cilley was killed.

One of the more famous incidents occurred in 1856 when Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the Senate chamber. Brooks was angry about a speech Sumner gave attacking the institution of slavery and those who supported slavery, including Senator Andrew Butler, a relative of Brooks. As a result of the attack, Sumner had to take leave from his Senate duties to recuperate.

The point I am trying to make is that while things have certainly reached a low in accordance with the standards we are accustomed to today, all civility is not lost. We still have an opportunity to change our political tone and the hyperbolic rhetoric that has consumed it. It did not start with Trump nor Waters, and it will not end with them.

Why not? It is simple. The language they are using is merely a sign of the feelings across the nation. Things are nowhere near has bad as they were throughout various periods of our history. That is not to say that words cannot lead to action, but that does not mean that civility is dead.

Until every American commits to being a better citizen and suppresses his or her most tribalistic instincts, the nation as whole will remain in a rut. We must remember that at the end of the day, the only person you can control is yourself. If enough people are not willing to be the change they wish to see, it is both impossible and implausible to expect the country to somehow be better than the actions of its citizens.

Shermichael Singleton is a Republican political consultant and conservative commentator who appears regularly on MSNBC. He worked on the presidential campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Romney: Trump's remarks at Putin summit 'disgraceful and detrimental to democratic principles' Utah's largest paper compares child separation to war crimes in scathing editorial MORE and was an adviser to Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonTrump walks a tightrope with comments on NATO Progressive politics have done nothing to help black America Is civility in America really dead? MORE. Follow him on Twitter @Shermichael_.