Civility, or civil war?
In today’s political battles, the most consequential casualty has been civility. Can the state of public discourse get any worse? A president who tweets insults and belittles opponents with demeaning nicknames and calls critical journalists “enemies of the people.” A Senate minority leader who calls out Supreme Court members by name and seems to threaten them (he later apologized). Our elected leaders of both parties engage in rudeness and rhetoric of a kind that never would be tolerated in business, the nonprofit sector or academics.
The art of compromise has come to be viewed as the art of surrender. The willingness to negotiate with adversaries and address them courteously has come to be viewed as a sign of weakness, not savvy statecraft. When Theodore Roosevelt called the presidency a “bully pulpit,” he used “bully” in the sense of “good” or “valuable.” He did not envisage the transformation of the presidency, and other high offices, into pulpits used to bully opponents.
Partisan rancor is nothing new. In 1907, historian Henry Adams, the descendant of two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, wrote: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” Indeed, what used to be called “senatorial courtesy” often was insincere and sarcastic: “I am afraid I must beg to differ with my esteemed colleague…” But as the old saying has it, manners are small morals. As philosophers since Aristotle have noted, virtue is acquired by habit, and habitual courtesy can instill the habit of genuine respect for people with whom we disagree.
Moreover, the protocols that once governed the way American officeholders address one another were based on respect for the office, not its temporary occupant. Formalities such as “Madame Speaker” and “Mr. President” now seem arcane, awkward salutations used only in rarefied settings.
This lack of civility in politics cannot be blamed on any one individual or party. It has been building for some time. No doubt this reflects, in part, a long-term cultural shift toward informality. The new vernacular replaces the professional with the personal and titles with first names. Politicians try to humanize themselves by, among other things, delivering public insults of a kind that once would have been kept private. But this only creates the appearance of intimacy, not its reality.
Now and then we have witnessed video recordings of legislators in other countries engaged in fisticuffs. The same thing happened in the U.S. Senate in 1856, when the pro-slavery Sen. Preston Brooks of South Carolina brutally caned the abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Civil war in the Senate was an early warning sign of the actual civil war to come.
Paradoxically, cooperation across party lines today is very real. In the past week, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed and the president signed an $8.3 billion emergency appropriation bill.
Cross-party collaboration exists even in the absence of crises such as the coronavirus outbreak. In January, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, was signed into law by the president after winning bipartisan support in the House and Senate. In 2019, the First Step Act, the most important criminal justice reform legislation in many years, was supported by the White House and large majorities of both parties in the House and Senate.
But how many Americans know of these recent triumphs of bipartisanship? Politicians of both parties play down such instances of cooperation with the other side, while publicizing their disagreements.
They are not irrational to do so, from a narrow tactical perspective. Aggressive, disrespectful behavior frequently pays off in greater visibility and more votes and donations. And by proving that belligerence is not only acceptable but also rewarded, national leaders encourage similar behavior all the way down the line to state and local governments.
There can be no doubt that the media reward conflict, not consensus building. “If it bleeds, it leads” in the news business. But blaming the media is an alibi, not a valid excuse. There can be no doubt some of the new forms of social media encourage arms races, rewarding the most vicious and sarcastic voices in public and private life with followers and celebrity. But in the earlier era of radio and television, there were demagogues such as Louisiana’s Huey P. Long and Wisconsin’s Joe McCarthy. Their style of politics was rejected by the American elite of their generation. “Go along to get along” was the mantra of Sam Rayburn, the House Speaker for most of the time between 1940 and 1961. “Let us reason together” was the motto of Lyndon Baines Johnson as Senate majority leader and president.
Today, it seems, the motto of our governing elite is “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
Will the pendulum swing back? It may take a new generation to restore common courtesy and decency to American politics once again. Those of us who are privileged to work in education know that many younger Americans still view politics as civic duty, not civil war. They understand that public service is all about a calling, not about calling out. If the older generation fails to restore civility to public life, we can take comfort in the fact that the next generation may once again treat public office with the respect it deserves.
Angela Evans is dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. Previously, she was deputy director of the Congressional Research Service and spent 40 years in public service to the U.S. Congress.