The national concern over civility — or lack thereof — in our public discourse is apparently one of the few bipartisan issues left in American politics. At a rally on Wednesday, President Donald Trump, seemingly without a trace of irony, said Americans “should stop treating political opponents as morally defective” and urged the media and his Democratic adversaries to “set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility” toward conservatives. Republicans such as Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz should not be accosted by protestors and activists while dining at restaurants. It’s uncivil.
And after pipe bombs were mailed to Democratic critics of President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE, Hillary Clinton agreed that vituperative language is a problem in our culture, but reiterated that Trump and the Republicans are to blame for it. “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for,” Clinton said earlier this month. Though Trump and Clinton thus differ on the sources of our incivility, both imply that Americans need to stop yelling at each other and settle disagreements in a respectful, sympathetic (if not empathetic) tone.
But calls to overcome our political divisions with greater civility are misguided, if not futile. This is because for much of American history, particularly in times of crisis, incivility reveals larger problems that can be addressed only by politics, not by civility. In fact, calls for civility historically are efforts to stifle struggles for improvement, to impede the progress of history.
Americans’ lack of civility speaks to the severity of the times, to the urgency of the historical moment. Indeed, the absence of civility in American politics is nothing new. As historian Joanne Freeman argues in “The Field of Blood,” her new book on the history of violence in Congress, lack of civility was endemic to American political culture in the years before the Civil War.
By the time of Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, the American party system had broken down over the issue of slavery. John Brown’s raid and “Bleeding Kansas” produced — and reproduced — violence during the sectional crisis that led to the Civil War. Our politics throughout the 1850s was uncivil; but the root cause of the Civil War was the institution of slavery, not incivility. The only way to restore civility in the United States in the mid-19th century was to abolish slavery, which could be done only through a Civil War.
Americans’ hostility toward each other is not exclusive to the 19th century. Unemployment and low wages during the Great Depression made farmers want to “shoot the banker,” while others yearned for a “revolution” to displace greedy capitalists. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, in restraining unfettered capitalism and the speculative practices of Wall Street — at the time — thus restored stability to our economy and politics, which lessened the presence of uncivil rhetoric and acts of violence.
And during the civil rights movement, civility often served to preserve injustices. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Greensboro Sit-ins, the Freedom Rides — these were responses to the veneer of civility that preserved racial injustice in the Jim Crow South. In response to liberal critics of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said the demonstrations he led in Birmingham in 1963 were “unwise and untimely” — in other words, uncivil — King said that he never was involved in “a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” From King’s perspective, civility was not the means to end racism.
In fact, incivility benefited Democrats in Washington supportive of civil rights, particularly Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey (the two politicians who worked hardest for civil rights in the 1960s). “You’re with me! You’ve got to be with me,” LBJ yelled to West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd when the senator told Johnson he would not support the Civil Rights Act. Johnson was not interested in civility when it came to the struggle for racial justice.
Americans should consider this history when thinking about our present predicament. In our hyper-polarized era, demands for civility testify to the lack of faith in our institutions. Civility alone will not improve the flaws of our democracy. As author and law professor Keith Bybee has suggested, American notions of civility are contradictory and highly contentious. When Trump and the Republicans decry the lack of civility, they desire the absence of politics; the status quo.
For Republicans, to maintain civility is to acquiesce to our political predicament. Democrats, however, believe civility is a tool to achieve consensus, for proving the righteousness of their arguments — to overcome stark ideological barriers through intellectual exchange. But when liberals ponder evidence of incivility in our culture, they should not confuse civil engagement with the need for common courtesy. (How disrupting someone’s dinner could change the course of political events is a better question to ask, rather than whether such actions reveal a pervasive lack of civility.)
Both Republicans and Democrats ignore the complicated history of civility in the United States. While Americans do not face the challenges of a Civil War or a Great Depression, we are in the throes of another crisis that needs to be fixed by democratic action. The root cause of our incivility is the inadequacies of our politics, the ineffectiveness of American leaders to respond to democratic pressures, to reverse acts of injustice and inequality. Political participation — voting, organizing and protesting — not politeness, is thus the only way to fix our democracy.
Michael Brenes is senior archivist at Yale University overseeing manuscripts and archives, and a historian specializing in the political and international history of the Cold War. Before coming to Yale, he taught American and international history at Hunter College, City University of New York and Seton Hall University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Price of Loyalty: Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and the Struggle for American Liberalism.”