Commentary Magazine


The Politics of Incivility

“Bush Lied, People Died,” said the post-Iraq bumper sticker. “You lie!” shouted Rep. Joe Wilson at President Obama during a 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress. The two examples constitute, respectively, Exhibit A for the GOP lament of the decline of civility in American life and Exhibit A for the same lament from the Democratic side.

Despite what you have been hearing lately, incivility is nothing new in American politics. As Daniel M. Shea and Morris P. Fiorina note in their new edited volume Can We Talk? The Rise of Rude, Nasty, Stubborn Politics, incivility has a long pedigree in American political discourse. Consider the warning the Connecticut Courant issued about the consequences of a Thomas Jefferson victory in the presidential election of 1800: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced….The soil will be soaked with blood.” Or the taunt in 1884 arising from allegations that Grover Cleveland had had an affair with a young widow and fathered an illegitimate child: “Ma, Ma, where is Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Nevertheless, it is hard to spend much time on political websites these days without finding somebody calling somebody else a “douchebag” or an “asshat.” Writing in the American Journal of Political Science in January 2007, Deborah Jordan Brooks and John G. Geer propose an operational definition of incivility as “claims that are inflammatory and superfluous.” The “douchebag” proliferation certainly fits.

It may be that incivility in politics has a cyclical character, perhaps associated with times when the contending parties feel the stakes are especially high, as they seem to feel now. No doubt, as Fiorina notes, “the sorting of politically active Americans into parties that have grown much more homogeneous than they were in the mid-20th century” has been a contributor to incivility, as people encounter fewer fellow partisans with significantly different positions on issues. Moreover, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and the profusion of social media mean that “rude, nasty politics is dragged into our homes and into our daily lives with or without our consent,” as Shea and Fiorina write. “Again, the tone of politics might be no rougher than in past eras, but we simply are exposed to more of it.”

Americans themselves, in numerous public opinion surveys, believe that incivility is on the rise. In a poll of registered voters for the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College in November 2010, days before the congressional elections that gave the GOP control of the House, 63 percent of respondents said politics had become “less civil” since Obama became president. In an August 2011 Rasmussen Reports survey, 76 percent of respondents expressed the view that Americans are becoming “more rude, less civilized.” Whether American politics is newly uncivil or conditions have arisen in which our inner incivility is finally finding an outlet, nowadays, when people dish, the dish is louche.

Yet to lament the decline in civility, and leave it at that, is to miss several important elements of the contemporary American experience. Incivility may be a defect, but the conditions that give rise to it have their virtues as well: a robust tradition of freedom of expression, an energetic commitment to democratic self-government and the partisan wrangling that goes along with it, and a new political culture in which the barriers to entry into debate have never been lower and the ability to attract an audience never greater.

In addition, there is the remarkable fact that American politics remains civil where it matters the most. Talk about politics is raucous and rude, but the practice of debating and passing legislation, governing, and adjudicating remains measured, sober, and deliberative. We are not so far gone as we sometimes like to think. And as for those who decry incivility—often, in their denunciations, falling prey to it themselves—how often is lack of civility the problem, and how often is the problem that people with whom they disagree simply won’t shut up?

“An armed society is a polite society,” pronounced the science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein in his novel Beyond This Horizon. His provocation has been especially popular among gun-rights enthusiasts. The idea seems to be that if the consequences for outrageous or even merely rude behavior toward another person could be lethal, people will treat each other in a civil and respectful manner.

Though it runs deeply counter to the conventional progressive American view, which holds that the proliferation of guns is dangerous, the Heinlein aphorism has an intuitive appeal: Would you mouth off at someone who has a six-shooter holstered to his belt? Probably you would think twice. Would you, the pedestrian crossing the road at the crosswalk with the light, give the finger to the turning car that failed to yield to you, if the odds were that the driver had a handgun and was ready to use it to pay you back for your rude gesture? Maybe not.

Heinlein clearly approves of the armed utopia he has devised and the manly, ready-to-draw civility that comes with it. His epigram, however, is worth consideration not only in the form in which he proffers it, but perhaps even more so in its logically equivalent contrapositive form: “If a society is not polite, then it must not be armed.”

Unless civility is somehow a natural condition of human interaction, which would seem to run counter to both Darwin and the Bible (not to mention Heinlein), then conditions of civility must come about either because people have a positive motive to be civil to one another, or have some cause to fear the consequences of the failure to treat one another civilly. Those negative consequences could take any number of forms: You might be challenged to a duel for behaving rudely, or get slapped in the brig, or find yourself ostracized by your social group.

It matters enormously whether the consequences are of an official or a private character. Private speech is subject to social, not political or legal, sanction. If one is abusive toward associates, they may be inclined to dissolve the association (though within the family, it’s more complicated, as it is when the abusive person enjoys a power advantage in the relationship). One may not say just anything one pleases with impunity: Social sanction for uncivil behavior, while it does not deprive one of life or liberty, can be painful to the psyche. In private speech, there is an incentive among friends and associates to maintain civility; everyone is in a sense “armed” with the ability to participate in sanctioning bad behavior. Indeed, although private speech has certainly grown coarser and sailors curse no more flamboyantly than anybody else these days, there’s no indication that the civility of private speech has declined at all.

A society in which powerful social sanction extends beyond private speech to public speech will be more “polite”—i.e., conformist with regard to social norms for behavior—than a society in which public speech is governed only by the rules and rights of a liberal political and legal regime. This may help explain why political discourse in certain other modern liberal states has not become as unruly as ours.

Still, it is an entirely different phenomenon when rudeness is something determined under color of authority, and when sanctions for rudeness have the force of law. For the state to deprive a person of life, liberty, or property for the crime of incivility, rudeness, or disrespect directed toward those in authority—or those upon whom the authorities smile—is a far more serious proposition.

And it is rare. In the 1942 case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court held that certain kinds of speech were not subject to the protection of the First Amendment (and therefore could be prohibited by the state). Included were “fighting words,” defined by the Court as “those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” Since then, however, the Court has significantly narrowed its view of what the state might prohibit on the grounds of “fighting words.”

Meanwhile, the idea of “fighting words” in the colloquial sense of a justification for coming out swinging is in grave disrepute, as James Bowman notes in his book Honor: A History. If someone attacks you physically, you have the right to defend yourself by force. But there really is no longer any category of verbal provocation held to justify a violent response. An offense against one’s “honor” does not excuse violent reprisal. Dueling is illegal even if consensual. Although people sometimes still fight, including over honor, from the schoolyard to the barroom to the ’hood, they do so without legal permission or the blessing of polite society, which holds that resorting to force is off-limits. If someone directs “fighting words” at you and you, in your ensuing rage, kill him, you might at best face a second- rather than first-degree murder charge. So it doesn’t matter what people say about you or your mother.

There are, of course, certain speech acts that still draw the attention of the authorities. You can rant and rave all you like, but if you threaten someone, you are asking for trouble. And if directed at (for example) the president of the United States, a rant giving indication of potentially dangerous mental disturbance, even though unaccompanied by a threat, will probably land the ranter on a Secret Service “watch” list. Note that it is not simply the uncivil speech that draws official scrutiny, but the intrusion of violence by way of discourse, even if the threat is empty or unserious or exists only in your potential to do harm to yourself or others.

But these exceptions aside, the rigorous constitutional protections for freedom of speech in the United States and most other liberal societies mean that one may make outrageous comments about even the highest of public officials without fearing loss of liberty, much less loss of life. And as long as your incivility falls short of the stringent legal criteria for establishing slander or libel, your property is also secure from damage claims resulting from your speech.

Even though legal sanction for speech mostly doesn’t exist in the United States, social sanctions do continue to have great effect in forestalling incivility. The question, then, is why there is less social sanction for incivility in “public speech” (that intended for a broad audience) than there used to be, as opposed to the ongoing social sanction that has kept “private speech” (that intended for one other person only or perhaps a small group) more civil.

Political speech is by nature public, intended to be heard or read by others (even if the identity of the speaker or author is not necessarily meant to be known). The political conversation on today’s Internet lies in a direct path from Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park. As with Speaker’s Corner, the Internet is a place for wide-open debate. Both Speaker’s Corner and the Web stand as symbols of a commitment to free speech. And both also, it happens, attract a substantial number of wild-eyed fanatics. It is especially political speech that has become uncivil today. That’s because speakers no longer perceive politics itself and therefore political speech as a matter of life and death. Expressions of opinion and disagreement can be uncivil without dangerous consequences.

Public speech always has an element of performance. Speakers seek attention for themselves. They may find that the more inflammatory their remarks, the more effective they are in drawing an audience. This is not the only way to draw an audience, of course, but it’s one way. Those most passionate about the views they hold may reward those who most passionately express the same view. In addition, incivility in politics, on all sides, nowadays comes with a support group. Your incivility, in addition to enraging your opponents, also pleases and galvanizes your friends, shoring up your side.

Complaints about incivility tend to be one-sided: One overlooks the incivility of one’s friends to focus on the incivility of one’s opponents. When a left-wing commentator denounces a conservative politician for incivility and demands that conservatives repudiate what the politician has said, liberals will tend to agree on the need for more civility. And vice versa. But this has little to do with a passion for civility and everything to do with partisan politics.

Genuinely nonpartisan calls for civility have a different constituency, perhaps of a mythical nature: the “broad middle” said to be turned off by the extreme rhetoric of both sides. But one must ask: Is it really high principle motivating this constituency? Or is this a group whose common characteristic is its indifference to politics as partisans of both sides practice it? If the latter, then it is not properly a “constituency” at all.

It is striking that nothing has come of the efforts to transform this “broad middle” into a majority voting bloc that could seize political control. If everyone falls somewhere on a continuum from left to right, then in principle one could win by commanding the 51 percent in the middle. But in practice, it hasn’t worked. The most likely reason is that the “continuum” model mischaracterizes those in the middle as moderate or centrist, when in fact they are not interested in politics or policy at all and respond to political appeals perhaps on election day but not otherwise. It is easy to speak in the name of the “broad middle,” as advocates of civility often do, but much harder to lead the broad middle, since it isn’t necessarily looking for leadership and won’t follow.

The campaign trail, meanwhile, is strewn with an immense pile of abandoned pledges not to engage in “negative campaigning.” For most politicians, civility is something to practice only until it puts you in danger of losing—which is a little short of a case for civility in politics.

It’s also somewhere around here that we run into the phenomenon of advocates of civility denouncing the incivility of American politics in the most uncivil terms. It’s possible that they don’t realize the inconsistency of their position. More likely, they are merely engaged in a bit of political posturing intended to flatter themselves.

But there is a class of political speech where civility has indeed prevailed and continues to do so. A few examples: Arguments before the Supreme Court are models of civility. Although some of the justices are capable of wit and even sarcasm, and although those arguing before the Court tend to feel afterward that they really know what it means to be grilled, the atmosphere in the Court is circumspect and dignified.

Similarly, polling places on election day are models of decorum. In almost all cases, a hush prevails at the polling station. Advocates for opposing candidates are absent. The election workers maintain a scrupulous neutrality and a sober demeanor. In a presidential election involving 150 million voters in 2008, the number of accusations of voter intimidation at the polls was in the single digits.

Likewise, even strong disagreement on the floor of the Senate over a piece of legislation is noteworthy for its comity. The senators may not really mean it when they refer to each other as “my distinguished colleague,” but the effect is real. The House floor is somewhat more raucous, but mainly during “Special Orders,” a period after adjournment for the day when members can take the floor and speak on anything they wish. The “You lie!” episode was noteworthy for how unusual it was. Wilson faced criticism not only from Democrats but also from some Republicans, and he apologized for the incident. And it’s worth noting that Wilson hurled his insult not as the House was performing its legislative function, but at a ceremonial occasion. During even the most contentious floor debates over legislation, members feel obliged to refrain from insulting each other personally, and when the question is called and members start voting, quietude prevails, at least until one side has crossed the threshold of victory.

These three exemplary places of public civility have something in common: They are places of political decision, the true loci of political and juridical resolution of disagreement in this country. From the floor of Congress springs the law of the land. At polling places, the people render their judgment on who will represent them. In courtrooms, disinterested judges and juries make decisions affecting the liberty and property and sometimes the survival of the individuals appearing there. There are more such places, of course. Cabinet meetings at which questions of war and peace are on the table tend, by accounts, to be decorous if not solemn. Changes of command in the military are formal and ceremonial. Executive-branch agencies often conduct hearings into proposed new regulations, and the behavior of the parties appearing at them tends to be similarly decorous. State and local jurisdictions replicate federal institutions and practices and the decorum that goes with them.

One might say that people interacting on the floor of Congress, at the polls, or in a court of law act as if they and others were armed. There are, of course, legal sanctions for misbehavior in these places. Electioneering is illegal within a hundred yards of the polls. Judges have the power to order unruly persons removed from their courtrooms or jailed for contempt. Breach of the rules of the House and Senate is not criminal, but the sanction is more than merely social: It’s constitutional. In an extreme case, these bodies have the authority to expel a member.

But whence comes the importance of maintaining decorum in these places? Why constitutional and legal sanctions for misbehavior including incivility here but not elsewhere? Perhaps it’s because incivility, including violent rhetoric (though such rhetoric is enabled by a liberal politics that has taken violence off the table), is nevertheless a reminder that politics is not everywhere, or necessarily permanently, free of violence. Violent rhetoric and its underlying sentiments, when coupled with the moment of actual political decision-making, can have disastrous consequences. It is therefore important to keep such rhetoric at some remove from the places and circumstances of political and juridical decision-making.

One strain of criticism of classically liberal politics, and not an attractive one, regards its peaceable resolution of disagreements by means of elections, legislation, and juridical processes as an abeyance—a suspension, at best, of the essentially life-and-death quality of politics as such. This view sells the durability of liberal politics short. But even though liberal societies do little or nothing to try to suppress incivility in the public square more generally, they are right to remain wary of the return of violence to political disputation and to keep violent rhetoric and even uncivil rhetoric far from their places of decision-making.

Our liberal political order thus enables nonviolent incivility. The United States has been, perhaps, from its inception, a country more unruly than most other liberal polities. Our politics has always had an element of incivility to it. Not only do we have the liberal right to speak freely; we’re also free from the authority of venerable traditional institutions such as a crown, an established church, a hereditary aristocracy, or an upper class expecting deference. It seems likely that a vestigial regard for or even fear of these sources of authority, which once commanded deference, may to a degree dampen incivility in the now-liberal polities where they retain influence.

Further, Americans have never had much cause to doubt their own free judgment—the judgment of their partisan opponents, certainly, but not themselves in general and collectively. Even slavery, the biggest stain on the American experience, predates the Founding and thus avoids a specifically American imprimatur; in addition, slavery was regional, and the blame for it therefore localized, rightly or wrongly. Nor did the liberalism of the American political order spring full blown from the 1789 Constitution. It developed over time. All things considered, there is nothing in the American experience remotely comparable to the Nazi period in the current German experience: occasion for bowel-shaking doubt and remorse on a national scale. Skepticism about what one might do with one’s freedom, what freedom is capable of when it flourishes unconstrained by liberal order, could also have a dampening effect on the propensity for incivility.

Although incivility in America was present at the creation, it is nevertheless hard to deny that incivility in America has increased as platforms for public speech have proliferated. Everybody has a printing press and a microphone these days. Back when three commercial networks and a much smaller public broadcasting service ruled the television spectrum, when a few major newspapers enforced standards for newsworthiness of their own devising, when newspaper op-ed pages and a relatively small number of weekly or monthly or quarterly periodicals were the totality of outlets for the written expression of opinion—well, in those days, the norms governing civility in politics were easy to enforce. A de facto near-banishment from public speech was the available sanction for nonconformity to social norms, including public decorum. It worked both ways, however. As the 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman remarked in his autobiography, if he didn’t feel like appearing on television on a particular day, he would write “F—K” on his forehead. Never failed.

Those days are over, never to return. And good riddance. If the price of civility was the return of gatekeeping on the scale of that bygone era in our media culture, it would be too high. It also seems to me that the danger of incivility to liberal political order has to be weighed against the danger posed by those who would recriminalize aspects of uncivil discourse through restrictions on “hate speech” and the like. The test for the unlawfulness of speech in a free society should remain violent content: a threat or incitement.

Finally, there is the question of how damaging incivility in political discourse actually is. I raise this question as someone committed to civility; I have never called anyone a “douchebag,” and I do not intend to start in with “asshat” now. My preferences aside, what is the empirical evidence?

The article by Brooks and Geer I cited at the beginning reports on the results of an elaborate experiment to measure people’s comparative responses to positive political messages, negative messages (in the sense of negative campaigning), and uncivil negative messages (including those with ad hominem personal attacks included). People tend to discredit the value of messages that include personal attacks. But “upon close examination…we see no evidence that even the most despised of candidate messages—negative, uncivil, trait-based messages—are harmful to the democratic engagement of the polity.” They continue:

We see some suggestive evidence that those least-liked, least-valued kinds of messages may modestly stimulate two things that we tend to care a great deal about improving as a society: political interest and likelihood to vote….Disagreements abound. Our data, however, suggest that the public will not melt in response to harsh exchanges—even those that are uncivil—and might even modestly profit from them in some cases.

It’s certainly not the last word on the subject of the potential danger of incivility. But voter turnout, at least, has continued to increase since the article by Brooks and Geer appeared in 2007. If some people are turned off by the vitriol to the point of disengaging from participation in politics in the most basic way, by not voting, their numbers appear to be more than offset by other people tuning in.

The breakdown of civility is not, therefore, the crisis in liberal political order some have made it out to be—at least not yet. Decorum has not broken down where it counts most, at the places and times we are actually making our political decisions. We have a firebreak—partly Constitutional, partly statutory, partly customary—between incendiary political rhetoric and the political and juridical resolution of our disagreements.

If the inflammatory rhetoric managed to jump that firebreak, then we would have a serious problem. What we have now instead is freedom, incivility and all.

About the Author

Tod Lindberg, editor of Policy Review, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of its task force on the Virtues of a Free Society. This article is based on remarks he gave in April at the Asan Plenum in Seoul, South Korea.




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