The Trumpster and the Statesman: Civility/Incivility and the Limits of Good Government

Curator's Note

By now we have all seen the pictures and watched the video of clashes between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump at Trump rallies. Just a few weeks ago, we witnessed the personification of political strife in the chance meeting of a Trump-loving tow truck driver and a stranded Bernie supporter. In the months since Summer 2015 when Trump bounded upon the front row seat in the GOP nominating contest and, despite protestations to his utter unsuitability for the job, refused to budge, numerous pundits, academics, and others have weighed in on the seriousness of the partisan fractiousness that has seeped from the election contest into the general citizenry. All of this, most argued, has come to a head because of the emergence of Trump and his brand of insult-packing politicking. Incivility, they argue, has reached an all-time high under Trump's reign as the candidate terrible. So, predictably, renewed calls for civility erupted. But what does being civil mean? In its simplest incarnation, it means to be courteous, polite, to possess good manners. In the political sense, this means that one is willing to engage in genteel discussion even though doing so may sometimes go against one's policy prescriptions. The "problem" of incivility, many argue, is a plague unprecedented in American history. And it is this uncritical conviction that drives the modern call for civility at all cost. The truth is that although there are numerous studies documenting the presence of negativity in campaigns, it is far from clear if the lack of civility is the root cause of low participation in the political process or voter mistrust of politicians. There is, however, another way those who uncritically call for the normalization of civility can think of incivility within a more nuanced frame of understanding. Calls for civility do not take into account the role that incivility plays in accelerating society toward a more equitable outcome with respect to the quest for social justice. As the legal scholar Randall Kennedy persuasively argued… “moral progress does not just happen. It is made to happen.” What Kennedy had in mind were actions that are tainted with coercion (like strikes and boycotts); aggressiveness as exemplified by the antislavery polemics of people like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass who decried slavery as debased and savage; and violence such as Abraham Lincoln's marshaling of Union forces against the Confederacy. Indeed, he goes on to argue that an overreliance on a conception of civility as manners is the least helpful way of thinking about the relationship between civility and the need for redress of wrongs perpetrated against the marginalized. This “mannered” conception of civility---cloaked in conforming ways of address and an ideology of politeness---is limited to mere tolerance of differing points of view. Such an approach can operate as a distraction from addressing real problems and in many ways presents as a silencing mechanism where arguments can be dismissed as uncivil regardless of the merits of the disagreement. In such environments (such as that which occurred in Ferguson, Occupy, Chicago, among other venues), the behavior of those offering disagreement becomes the issue and the injustice that animated the disagreement is rendered inconsequential. Modern callers for civility assume that positive relations with one’s opponents should be maintained less the relationship devolve into a negative, dysfunctional, and less productive engagement. And yet, disagreement lies at the heart of democracy. Indeed such disagreement holds more truth and legitimacy than an artificial edifice of manners. In his treatise, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that opinion gains value when it faces criticism. That is to say, truth is the political outcome when difference---what Mill called a "collision of error"---is allowed to strengthen democratic engagement. Although most people agree that disagreement is endemic to politics, there is the natural human desire to seek commonality and downplay points of contention. I guess we should ask ourselves if individuals like Donald Trump and others irreparably harm or continually strengthen our democracy. In the process of deciding, we would be wise to consider the words of Mill and others who recognized that in seeking a driven unanimity, we do not appreciate the crucial role that difference plays in democratic engagement. If the goal in a democracy is to seek a more engaged and informed public so as to service justice and egalitarianism, should we not consider that it is power that benefits when civil discourse is primal? That is to say, by eliminating those with different or even offending points of view from decision making, do we risk allowing elite members of society to incubate power among themselves? In the end, democracy benefits from a multiplicity of worldviews where criticism of the status quo is endemic to the political process. Is our democracy so fragile that we cannot withstand the controversial stump excursions of individuals like Donald Trump?


I appreciate the focus on what we might call "tone policing" in the calls for a more "civil" debate. You rightly point out that conflict is not inherently bad, and in fact, is politics can often be good. Yet, as the clip you provided shows, the conflict and negativity here do not seem to be about substance, but about personalities. Thus the Mills quote you articulate here fails to really connect since it's not critique of opinion but critique of person that we're seeing here. In the two "historical" examples they give with Bush Sr. and Clinton, the "insults" are about foreign policy experience, not spray tans, small hands, and sweaty brows. Only at a point where we think of our politicians in terms of people we'd like to have beers with rather than people we think are qualified to run a country in ways that fit our political beliefs do these more personal insults make any sense. I agree 100% that civility is a problematic critique in this case, and many others, as accusations of incivility are often used to silence those working toward social justice. I return again to thinking about it more in terms of spectacle, or perhaps surface vs. substance, rather than civility or incivility. It seems to me that your question at the end betrays its answer: it is only strong enough to withstand Trump if he loses. For who will say our democracy has succeeded if Trump wins, and what kind of democracy will we have left?

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