Civility Makes a Great Scam

by Alasdair Denvil

You'd think that with all the complaints about the "tone" of politics these days that it would actually improve. After all, the same people who say that current political debate is carried out in an uncivil and vehement manner are the same people who conduct political debate in an uncivil and vehement manner. Of course, it isn't improving, and the reason why has to do with the way a good cause can be turned into just another hypocritical, underhanded political tactic.

Consider: On the one hand, Democrats object that their criticisms of Bush's military and homeland security policies are met with accusations that they are unpatriotic. On the other hand, Republicans object that their criticisms of Democrat proposals on economics and social programs are met with accusations that they don't care about senior citizens, about children, the poor, that they are racist, etc. That is, Republicans question the patriotism of Democrats, while Democrats question the humanity of Republicans. And then each side says that the other is poisoning the well of open debate.

Now consider the example of Terry McAuliffe, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In a speech last May to the Ohio Democratic Party, McAuliffe said that President Bush "has unleashed a New McCarthyism that, under the cloak of a time of crisis and peril, has vilified and questioned the patriotism of those who have policy and political differences with him and his administration."

Then, later on in the same speech, McAuliffe criticized the president's economic policy, saying "The story goes that as the lifeboats were being loaded, the wealthy of the passengers of the Titanic pushed aside the women and children. The values of this administration would be quite at home aboard that ill-fated ship." So Bush questions the patriotism of those who disagree with his military and foreign policy, and McAuliffe cries foul. But he then feels free to characterize those who disagree with his own economic policy as trivializing human life.

I don't mean to imply that Republicans are any less hypocritical - they complain about Democrats questioning their humanity while feeling free to question their patriotism - but McAullife's speech is a perfect illustration of how one-sided and hypocritical this commitment to civil debate has become. I'll be charitable and assume that this hypocrisy is on all sides unintentional, but that doesn't make it pardonable. In fact, by espousing civil debate in this self-servingly selective manner - that is, denouncing demonization and name-calling when it's used BY your opponents even while using it ON your opponents - it's been turned into just another duplicitous political tactic. That is, the call for civil debate has been twisted into something as underhanded as UNcivil debate.

And it has given both parties a delusional sense of self-righteousness. Democrats have been consoling themselves in their recent defeats with the thought that their losses have been virtuous, because Republicans have been stooping to tactics that Democrats would never lower themselves to. And many Republicans seem to think that they've been WINNING because they've taken the high road. Rush Limbaugh routinely says that liberals care only about emotion, not logic, while Hillary Clinton says that "debate is not one of [Republicans'] higher values." Democrats say that Republicans have exploited Americans' patriotism and concern for national security, and Republicans say that Democrats have exploited Americans' compassion and concern for minorities and the needy.

In reality, both sides have lousy records when it comes to sensible, reasoned debate. Both sides rightly criticize the demonizing tactics of their opponents, but are blind to such failings on their own side. They both take the low road, and then they both "lament the politics of personal destruction" in which they both freely and enthusiastically engage.

The truth is that there are reasonable opinions on either side of economic and national security issues. This is not to say that all such opinions are correct, let alone that they are expressed in a manner that is dignified, and respectful of dissent. But there are legitimate disputes about what economic consequences will result from different kinds of legislation or fiscal policy. And there are legitimate disagreements regarding how various economic consequences (e.g., lower unemployment, greater economic growth, wider income distribution) should be prioritized. And there are parallel empirical and conceptual discussions to be had regarding military and foreign policy.

But the prevailing practice is to rebut opposing views by demonizing those who have them. This snuffs out sensible debate, not so much by scaring people into silence, but by replacing rational argument with spiteful, close-minded recriminations. Debates turn into contests about who can depict their opponent as the worse human being, rather than investigations into which policy has the most to be said in favor of it. All political controversies are reduced to "I'm right; you're a jerk." (Now, THERE'S a bumper sticker.) It feels very satisfying to say stuff like this, to savage the people you disagree with, and it likely wins you some political support. But such behavior is unproductive with respect to public policy, and also serves to make us coarser as people.

Anyone who truly opposes uncivil debate, demonization and the politics of personal destruction can do so in the way we normally oppose misbehavior: first, by setting a good example and not personally indulging in it; second, by even-handedly and consistently criticizing it when it appears in others, even if they are in your own political party. That is, Republicans should condemn other Republicans who question the patriotism of Democrats, and Democrats should condemn other Democrats who question the humanity of Republicans. (What you're now hearing from your nose and mouth is the sound of someone not holding their breath.)

You don't get rid of underhanded tactics by complaining when you're on the business end of them and then happily using them against the opposition. It's not just shameful when the other guy does it.

2003 Alasdair Denvil