Incivility Isn’t What’s Wrong With American Politics

This is not what democracy looks like, according to Mitch McConnell. Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hillary Clinton may not be president, but she retains the power to enrage Mitch McConnell.

On Tuesday, Clinton told CNN that Democrats “cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That’s why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and/ or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”

In response, the Majority Leader took to the Senate floor to rail against Clinton’s remarks, and the “mob tactics” of others on the left.

“No peace until they get their way?” McConnell said. “More of these unhinged tactics? Apparently, this is the left’s rallying cry. But fortunately, the American people know that the fact-free politics of hate, fear and intimidation are not how we actually govern in our democratic republic.”

McConnell isn’t the only Republican calling for a return to civility in politics in the wake of the blistering fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. This week, Senator Lisa Murkowski, the only Republican who voted against Kavanaugh, came to the defense of fellow GOP moderate Susan Collins, saying on the Senate floor that the harassment over her “yes” vote must end.

“[Collins] is now enduring an active campaign against her,” Murkowski said. “To be protested at her home every weekend, to know that she cannot travel without a police escort. … I made comments as I prepared for the final vote last week, and I said we are better than this.”

Murkowski even urged her Senate colleagues to watch the new Mr. Rogers documentary, remarking, “It’s okay to be good with one another. It’s okay to accept people for who they are. It’s okay to just find the good.”

Despite McConnell’s broad attack on the left, some Democrats still sound closer to Murkowski than Clinton. Former First Lady Michelle Obama defended her old slogan — “when they go low, we go high” — Thursday on the Today show. “Fear is not — it’s not a proper motivator. Hope wins out,” she said. “And if you think about how you want your kids to be raised, how you want them to think about life and their opportunities, do you want them afraid of their neighbors? Do you want them angry? Do you want them vengeful?”

But is it even worth attempting civility with the party of Donald Trump? Everyone can agree that death threats, which Collins reportedly received, are beyond the pale. But saying so isn’t an act of civility as much as it’s a plea to reduce or prevent harm. The call for civility, which by implication indicts incivility as a real problem plaguing American politics, elides the real nature of our ongoing political conflict.

In practice, “civility” has become one link in a chain of euphemisms — a racially coded one, as New York University fellow Simran Jeet Singh argued on Twitter in June. The Kavanaugh hearings were “an extraordinarily painful and divisive chapter,” Harvard Law School dean John Manning wrote in an email to students; in the same message, Manning explained that he would not take a public position on Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The word “divisive” appears elsewhere, in report after report about the Kavanaugh confirmation and its aftermath; the same term is frequently applied to Donald Trump. The president, similarly, spews “racially-tinged rhetoric,” or “racially-tinged comments,” according to various press outlets; ABC News reported that a white Trump appointee at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau published “racially-tinged blog posts,” where he repeatedly used racial slurs and questioned the real prevalence of hate crimes.

It would be more accurate, though still a cop-out, to say Trump’s words are tinged with racism. And while it might be superficially true to say that the Kavanaugh hearings were “divisive,” the word implies no value judgement; it takes the country’s temperature without diagnosing the illness. Neither does “civility.” “If there is any main wellspring of ‘incivility’ (an extremely ill-defined word, but setting that aside), it comes from the monstrously evil actions of the Trump regime,” Ryan Cooper wrote for The Week in June, after protesters had interrupted the restaurant outings of several Trump officials in response to the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy at the border.

Nothing has improved since June. Republican senators, working with a Republican president, just orchestrated a sham FBI investigation in order to get their preferred right-wing jurist on the Supreme Court, and afterward rebranded the credible sexual-assault accusations he faced as the products of a cynical Democratic campaign. Migrant families are still separated from each other, and the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the children of deported parents may be adopted by American families — a permanent separation. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reportedly finalizing new Title IX rules that would exempt universities from investigating sexual assaults that occur off campus, even if students are involved, and could limit the number of individuals to whom a student could report a sexual assault. The new rules come after DeVos met with men’s-rights activists about the issue of sexual assault.

We do not suffer problems that can be solved with better etiquette. Euphemisms, whether the term is “incivility” or “racially tinged,” have a veiling effect. Viewed through the lens of euphemism, problems don’t look like structural injustice, but like impolitic language. Won’t you be my neighbor? Say no, and suddenly you’re the problem. You’ve forgone dialogue, which is disrespectful, which is the one cardinal sin that the civility framework admits. As Michelle Obama herself acknowledged in a subsequent comment to Hoda Kotb, the process of change implies some discomfort. “Change is not a direct smooth path, there’s going to be bumps and resistance,” she said. Progress for marginalized people demands something from whoever’s behind the marginalization. As Sarah Leonard wrote in a June piece for The Nation, “activists have seldom won battles against injustice by asking politely.”

The Democratic Party is not some stainless paragon of virtue and progress. Far from it. But in most respects, Clinton had the right of it in her Tuesday interview. Fundamental differences do separate major factions of the American population from each other. One faction, represented by Donald Trump and the mainstream Republican Party, seems actively determined to crush the civil rights of those it deems to be deviant or inferior. And respectful dialogue, as it describes the concept of bipartisanship, implies that both parties are saying something worthy of respect. Trump is not the first president to break up some migrant families; Obama did the same. But Trump and his party are the first to implement a broad policy that separated migrant children from their parents, sometimes permanently.

Strip the euphemisms away, and there’s nothing to do but stare at what’s underneath. That’s the real problem. There’s no way to make it pretty.

Incivility Isn’t The Problem With American Politics