Nicholas Goldberg: Is civility really outdated in American politics?


I recently wrote a column to defend civility in politics. I didn’t say you should be best friends with people you disagree with, just that you shouldn’t go to Facebook to gloat and sing about the death of anti-vaxxers who succumbed to the COVID. It seemed pretty obvious to me that saying “fuck you” to the dead and their families wouldn’t help get anyone vaccinated or bring down the level of vitriol in the country.

But, boy, the backfire was strong. People seemed to think I was a jerk, playing by the old rules. Civility, they said, is a picturesque vestige of a distinguished past. Now we are at war with our political enemies. They don’t play by the rules, and only a moron would seek common ground or civil relations with such maniacs.

Some of the arguments made me think about my position. I believe that Donald Trump is a dangerous demagogue who cannot be treated rationally and civilly as if he were Dwight Eisenhower. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has so little respect for the rules that if Democrats behave like doormats — which I guess is a definition of civility — he will flatten them.

But at the same time, the country cannot move forward if the Americans declare war on each other and assume that communication is impossible.

Opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was editor of the editorial page for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.

Maybe “civility” is a misleading word for what I’m trying to describe. Honestly, I don’t care if people politely cut their hats or shake hands cordially or if politicians call their opponents across the aisle “my distinguished colleague.”

But civility is a substitute for something else; it is a symbol of behaviors that must be rekindled if we are to make American democracy work again. Cooperation and willingness to listen to those with whom we disagree. Debate and deliberation in our political process. A willingness to compromise to some extent and adherence to agreed rules and standards. A shared understanding of basic facts and truths.

We do not have to to like each other or renounce what we believe, but we must overcome the impasse caused by extreme polarization, bitter partisanship and tribal politics.

That should be the goal, anyway, because the alternative is collapse. Once you’ve learned to disrespect your opponents, what important step is it to dehumanize them? In this way lies chaos.

Polls already show Americans are not only at odds with their political adversaries, but distrust them, hate them and wish them ill. I don’t want to sound histrionic, but how long before we see other incidents like the one last summer outside LA City Hall where a man was stabbed during a clash between pro-mask protesters and anti-mask?

The decline of civility in our political process is not just a Trump-era phenomenon, although Trump has made matters worse. Its roots go back to before January 6, before Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in 2018, before the rise of social media or the cancellation of culture or Fox News or rowdy demonstrations at the homes of officials . It goes back to before South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shouted: “You lie!” to President Obama in 2009. It goes back at least to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Robert Bork, to the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern.

Yes, I am aware that the blame for the breakdown, as shown by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, rests disproportionately on Republicans. They are further down this dangerous path. It is their extremists who are legislating voter suppression, perpetuating the fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen, denying science and destroying norms and institutions at a rapid pace.

But if that’s the case, Democrats should work harder to find Republicans they can work with or who see the value of compromise. There must be more to the Republican Party across the country than Senator Josh Hawley or Representatives Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. And if there isn’t, well, at least they looked.

I am not advocating engagement with insurgents, white supremacists, election manipulators or QAnoners, but with reasonable people wherever they are. Personally, I think Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), with whom I disagree on almost everything except Trump, is a brave woman. I don’t like where Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is coming back on many issues, but of course Democrats should work with her.

Democracy demands unsavory alliances and unpleasant compromises. It’s messy and often unfair. Many obstacles tip the scales: campaign money, the power of special interests, partisan redistricting, the undemocratic structure of the Senate.

But working to resolve these issues, where possible, is a better option than letting the divisions grow even larger.

And that does not require Americans or their elected representatives to betray their principles. if you’re a politician, fight hard to get the best deals possible. If you are a citizen, then persuade others, register voters, get bodies out on election day, fight for control of Congress. Waving banners in the streets, shouting slogans and naming names.

None of this contradicts a functioning democracy.

But democratic institutions cannot work if we don’t listen, cooperate, play by the rules, and recognize the humanity of those who disagree with us.



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