Political polarization in the U.S. reportedly has attained levels comparable to just before the Civil War. Whether as a cause or an effect, standards of behavior in the public and political spheres also have plummeted. Calls to restore “civility” are a frequent response, but there’s a great deal of confusion on what this important concept actually entails. It’s easy to imagine it means something like, “Can’t we all just get along?”
No, we can’t. There’s disagreement because people disagree about genuinely important matters, including values. Fortunately, genuine civility doesn’t require us to give up the things, including values, that make us different.
The essential prerequisite for civility is granting one’s ideological and political adversaries the presumption of goodwill. Granting goodwill separates societies that settle political disagreements with ballots from those that do it with bullets. It’s a core democratic habit.
It works like this: I’m free to think your policy preferences are wrongheaded and misinformed, and say so in no uncertain terms. But I am not free to presume that you are motivated by anything other than goodwill toward all people. You are required to grant me the same presumption. We can dispute our differences with heated rhetoric, polemics and sarcasm, and can we also warn that bad things will happen if our opponent’s policy is adopted.
What we may not do is assert, or even presume, that our opponents are motivated by malice. You’ll find malice in statements such as, “Republicans want to make corporate moguls richer even if it makes babies go hungry,” or, “Democrats oppose school choice because they don’t care if inner-city children fail to learn.”
Nor may we declare that an opposing viewpoint is “proof” of the other’s immorality. “Democrats’ standard is if they don’t have a good message, they lie,” you might read on a blog. Another will say, “Republicans have surpassed even their own depraved standards.” Each is a different way of saying, “My opponents are evil.”
There is an exception: The presumption of goodwill does not apply to groups such as Nazis or Antifa, who announce their desire and intention to settle their grievances with violence or who visit harm on opponents. With that exception, no one is privileged to claim a political opponent “must” be motivated by bad will solely because they have different policy preferences.
Dismissing political opponents as “evil” also is a form of mental laziness. The presumption of goodwill requires introspection. One must ask, “Given that the other also has goodwill, how could he think the way he does? What mistaken premise or logic accounts for his misguided ideas?”
In the end, it’s likely that both sides have different underlying premises regarding human nature or some philosophical matter. But performing this exercise makes one more sympathetic toward ideological adversaries. It also might allow both sides to discover shared values on which future harmony can be found.
Refusing to grant the presumption of goodwill implies a belief that the end of gaining or keeping power justifies the means. Such a belief runs contrary to the Bill of Rights, which is based on the idea that maintaining procedural safeguards, even if they are obstacles to achieving a desirable goal, stands against tyranny. At the very least, it indicates that the uncivil person is disrespectful of core democratic habits.
We take for granted here that political and ideological differences will be resolved though reasoned debate and democratic procedures. We shouldn’t. In much of the world, disputes lead to cycles of violence. When a group claims a political adversary or viewpoint is “evil,” it has closed the door to civil discourse based on reason. What response can the opponents possibly make to charge of being “evil”? When the habit of civility is absent, violence frequently will be the result.
Civility is a learned habit, not something inherited at birth. It’s a product of the 18th century European Enlightenment, which was partly a reaction to 150 years of sectarian warfare. From that enlightenment came the idea that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. The habit of civility, like those principles, is precious and hard-won. It should always and everywhere be taught and encouraged.
Jack McHugh is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s senior legislative analyst and editor of MichiganVotes.org.