The Case Against Civility

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In modern politics, it seems that we fail to agree on much of anything. Our political leadership and derivative class of talking heads (of which I suppose I am a part) seem preoccupied with endless lamentation that our body politic is in need of greater civility. The first step towards sweetness and light it seems is to disagree with better manners.

The thinking goes: if only we were more civil toward one another, we could find a way to do more of the people’s business. Solutions to public problems could be hammered out, rather than hammering at each other. We’d return to a more effectively-governed yesteryear, where our leaders disagreed amicably and we were all better for it.

The only issue is that this bygone era never existed.

This is all based on false premises, fallacious reasoning, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the philosophical differences our major parties are supposed to represent. It is my fervent hope that you too will share my opinion that the conventional wisdom on the value of civility in our public discourse as a categorical imperative is neither conventional nor wise.

In regards to false premises, what stands out like a sore thumb is that both parties want the same thing:

A better America for the next generation.

Such a priority is amorphous a goal as has ever been defined, insofar as it lacks any definition. The two major parties in the United States may claim that a better America is their end goal, but for all intents and purposes, they want very different things. What that better America will look like, and how we will get there, are indeed quite different notions.

One party is based on the philosophical assumption that government – as the entity in society with a monopoly on the legal use of force – is capable of marshaling resources for the public good. About this, the Democrats are absolutely correct. Their vision of liberty is called positive liberty, as they envision the state doing things for people they would not be able to do themselves. In other words, the government is uniquely capable of doing good things.

The other party is based on the philosophical assumption that government – as the entity in society with a monopoly on the legal use of force – is capable of marshaling resources which threaten natural liberties. About this, the Republicans are absolutely correct. Their vision of liberty is called negative liberty. Not negative in the pejorative sense, but connoting they envision the role of the state as keepers of their natural rights at best, with a natural predisposition toward growth and encroachment thereupon. Therefore, as much as possible of American life must be kept out of their bailiwick. In other words, the government is uniquely capable of doing tremendous harm, and so should do little.

This inherent contradiction of human uplift and degradation within government means that the debate between the political parties should be regarded as sacred, given the high stakes involved. Not sacred in the sense of being divine or divinely inspired, per se, but that it should be different than all other debates.

While good manners are crucial to the building of community in social and civic life, they are largely meaningless in political life. We’re talking about the one entity in society that can legally take life to fulfill their prerogatives. If you aren’t going to get riled up about their doings, given the potential consequences, what will get you out of bed in the morning? Are you even alive?

This is obviously not a call to political violence. Human beings are capable of meaningful displays of passion – or even crude displays of political verbal jousting – without crossing the moral Rubicon of committing violence. Regrettably, advocates for civility in politics brandish their confusion by conflating heated rhetoric with the condoning of violent behavior. Even more absurd, and with no evidence asked for or given, it’s the source of inspiration for political violence.

It strains credulity to hold responsible our public figures and the political statements they make for the behavior of reality-detached people who believe political violence will inspire others to adopt their worldview.

We have a word for people who commit political violence. Terrorists. We also call them cowards. We should also identify them as morally confused. In a sane world, we deal with terrorists accordingly and only hold public officials who might share their political leanings accountable if they called for political violence themselves.

That the political parties represent contrasting visions of the appropriate role and size of government means that voters elect them to behave in specific ways, usually their voting record or policy preferences. When majorities of one party or another are sent to Washington, they are sent to put into practice the party’s vision. Therefore, what is important in our experiment with a Democratic Republic is the peaceful transition of governing power, not the rhetoric that accompanies it.

To focus on our tone or tenor wastes valuable and limited intellectual capital that would be better spent focusing on competing policy positions and visions for the universally-desired better future for the country.

The idiocy of the “civility as salvation” position does not end there. Government efficacy is not measured by how much legislation is passed, but on how effective legislation is in fulfilling public priorities. The average American asks questions about their quality of life and sense of safety in evaluating their government’s performance. That they would weigh these factors as less important than the overall productivity of the government is preposterous.

Even if you take this premise to its logical end and give the civility crowd everything they could possibly want, what would happen?

Based on the competing ideologies and visions of good government represented by the political parties, we would very politely disagree. However, the fundamental positions undergirding the disagreement, often irreconcilable, will remain unchanged. Nobody’s life would be improved, except for our class of legislators and political commentators. The average American would do what they do now and hardly pay attention at all.

The calls for civility awaken the echoes of Nero and his violin. Worse, they are an argument of whether the violin is in tune as the city burns.

Someone should be focusing on how we put the fire out.