There’s been a lot of talk in various circles of late lamenting the demise of “civility” on the American political landscape and the degrees of rancor and hostility that are so regularly on display. According to this narrative, “polarization” and the growing dearth of “centrists” are at the root of the problem.
The situation – or so goes the narrative – can be attributed in large measure to ever-more-efficient political gerrymandering, which by locking legislative candidates into “safe” districts, leads to party primaries that favor more “extreme” candidates who are less willing and able to talk to the other side.
Raleigh’s News & Observer and its sibling, the Charlotte Observer, have devoted a fair amount of space to this thesis of late. In the latest installment of their “NC Influencers” series, the papers quote prominent figures from both major parties who place gerrymandering at the heart of what the article characterizes as the “fierce divide between Carolinians.”
Of course, as compelling as the gerrymandering argument is – and it does shine some important light on the matter – it’s far from adequate to explain the divided state of American politics. After all, the poster child for the demise of American political civility hails from no gerrymandered district; like it or not, Donald Trump is the president of all 325 million Americans and all 50 states.
What’s more, it’s superficial and nearsighted to imagine that the national civility deficit is confined to the arena of elected officials. Those weren’t politicians clashing in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia last year and those aren’t elected officials – at least for the most part – who dominate Fox News, Breitbart or the airwaves of right-wing talk radio.
It’s also worth pointing out the silliness of the notion that the nation is somehow beset by the interplay of two comparably “extreme” ideologies.
Yes, the modern American conservative movement has certainly taken a hard right turn in recent decades. Any time in which conservative activists feel secure and empowered to gather in public after the election of their candidate to the presidency to shout “Heil Trump!” such a turn is impossible to deny.
But to suggest that there has been a similarly sharp turn on the left is simply nonsense. Yes, there has been some important movement on a handful of social issues amongst modern progressives – most notably around the matter of LGBTQ equality – but in virtually every other area of political discourse, 21st Century progressives stand to the right of their predecessors of only a few decades ago.
By comparison to the 1960’s, 70’s and early 80’s, there is no “left” in modern America. There is no genuine challenge to the ascendancy of capitalism in 2018. There is no challenge to the permanent existence of a massive military-industrial complex – something that even Dwight Eisenhower decried 60 years ago. There is no massive grassroots movement to end the deployment of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Even Bernie Sanders’ so-called “democratic socialism” is arguably to the right of the policies championed by mainstream Democrats as recently as the late 60’s and early 70’s.
This latter point helps to highlight yet another important truth about today’s discord – namely, that it’s hardly unprecedented.
The truth is that “civility” has been in short supply on a number of occasions in American history. It was in short supply when workers marched and braved police violence to win basic labor rights; when the federal government rounded up liberals and jailed them during the “Palmer Raids” that followed World War I; when capitalism all but failed during the Great Depression and “Hoovervilles” spread across the nation; when Joseph McCarthy pursued his witch hunts; when millions marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War; and, for goodness sake, when the nation enslaved more than a tenth of its population and fought a massive war to end that crime.
Indeed, by some measures, it’s arguable that the American experiment has endured more periods of general incivility than the alternative.
None of this is to say that the incivility we are experiencing today is pleasant or optimal. It would be much better if Donald Trump and his minions (and apologists) behaved with basic human decency and weren’t threatening to impose a kind of dangerous crypto-fascism.
Here in North Carolina, it would be better if GOP legislators weren’t attempting to effect the most egregious constitutional power grab in modern history.
If history teaches us anything, however, it’s that such bullying and authoritarian behavior is rarely turned back with polite disagreement. Right now, whether we like it or not, is a time for passionate, if peaceful, incivility – toward Trump, toward unfettered greed and corruption, toward power-hungry politicians, toward hate, racism and exclusion, and toward the behavior that endangers the very survival of our species.
For the time being, in other words, civility will have to wait.