What Should Progressives Be Willing to Sacrifice on the Altar of Civility?

Even during the Civil War, there were those urging civility at the expense of justice, as this famous Thomas Nast cartoon explains. Illustration: Thomas Nast

Last year’s so-called “civility debate” revolved around the extent to which it was acceptable to protest the presence of Trump administration figures pursing private pleasures in public places, like the restaurants where Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders found themselves excoriated.

But in the Washington Post this week, Eve Fairbanks addresses a more difficult and important issue: How much of their own moral capital should progressives expend by accepting the grievances of “reasonable” political opponents who want them to turn their backs on vulnerable allies and constituencies in the name of peace? It’s one thing to stretch out the hand of fellowship to angry MAGA folk who would just as soon see you in prison or a reeducation camp. It’s another thing to come to grips with Never Trumpers, center-right pundits, and other non-deranged folks who suggest they could become allies if only progressives would throw those people —whether it’s campus leftists, minority-rights activists, socialists, or proponents of radical reforms — under the bus. It can be tempting, particularly to political actors who are weary to the bone of constant warfare at every level of discourse.

Fairbanks offers a provocative analogy for these pleas from the “reasonable right”: the very similar pleas from antebellum southern apologists for slavery who begged their counterparts in the North to eschew abolitionist extremists and make common cause to save the Union:

Proslavery rhetoricians talked little of slavery itself. Instead, they anointed themselves the defenders of “reason,” free speech and “civility.” The prevalent line of argument in the antebellum South rested on the supposition that Southerners were simultaneously the keepers of an ancient faith and renegades — made martyrs by their dedication to facts, reason and civil discourse.

It might sound strange that America’s proslavery faction styled itself the guardian of freedom and minority rights. And yet it did. In a deep study of antebellum Southern rhetoric, Patricia Roberts-Miller, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Texas at Austin, characterizes the story that proslavery writers “wanted to tell” between the 1830s and 1860s as not one of “demanding more power, but of David resisting Goliath.”

I haven’t read as much antebellum southern literature as Fairbanks has, but have been exposed to enough to recognize what she’s talking about: a persistent strain of appeals to “reasonable” and “rational” people “at the North” to break ranks with the “fanatics” of the Republican Party and the abolition movement who are willing to destroy the nation to impose their radical social schemes on a resistant white and black population. Sometimes these Southerners posed as cultured Cavaliers opposing the bigoted Puritans of New England Congregationalist Calvinism who led the abolition movement. But their key argument was an offer of peace in exchange for tolerating slavery. It was powerful enough to keep the slavery issue more or less under wraps during the entire Second Party system in which Whigs and Democrats were each national coalitions held together by the tacit refusal to mess with the Peculiar Institution.

The real victims of this deal to maintain the peace were not, of course, the abolitionists (or their extremist counterparts in the South, the slavery-expansion zealots). The slaves themselves were presumed to be of too little civic (as opposed to economic) value to become a true casus belli.

And while Fairbanks doesn’t extend her argument to the politics of race that prevailed between the Civil War and the 21st century, the reasonable right was there all along, offering peace — for a price. Early on, southern defenders of restored white supremacy understood that their best prospects for success depended on convincing moderate northern opinion that Reconstruction was a bar to national reconciliation and economic recovery. While the white terrorists of the South who fought to crush voting, office-holding, and land ownership by ex-slaves were essential to the task of demoralizing well-intentioned Northerners, the real triumph of reaction occurred when Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes campaigned on an end to Reconstruction and then ascended to the White House after a contested election by consummating it. Within the South itself, social peace between rich and poor white citizens was achieved by an agreement that disenfranchising African-Americans was the top political priority, and Southerners wore down resistance to the imposition of Jim Crow by convincing an increasingly conservative Republican Party to abandon the “bloody shirt” and the cause of racial justice.

The peace-for-injustice bargain, of course, continued throughout the first half of the 20th century, where alternatively, Democratic Party unity and bipartisanship depended on the South’s ability to veto civil-rights legislation. Even now, centrists of all varieties lament the passing of those golden years when white male senators got together over bourbon and cigars and cut deals that depended on the continued subjugation of people who did not look like them.

Long after the antebellum era, in which Fairbanks hears eerie premonitions of today’s “reasonable right,” it was a powerful force in American politics. And its fundamental purpose was not so much to marginalize “the left” or “radicals” as to sideline the powerless people for whom they spoke, often alone.

Does that mean the “reasonable right” proponents Fairbanks worries about are racists or neo-Confederates? No, of course not. What they are, by and large, are people who fundamentally disagree with the idea (as expressed by, of all people, Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential nomination acceptance speech) that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” For various reasons, they aren’t particularly invested in progressive causes, and think reasonable center-left people should identify with their grievances against political correctness and the alleged cultural dominance of the radical left, and join with them in a coalition against left and right extremism.

To those of us who think the left is mostly (not always) right and the right is mostly (not always) wrong, these pleas for reason are the ultimate reflections of false equivalence, and the peace they offer is the troubled sleep of a guilty conscience. As always, those who will pay the real price for this sort of corrupt bargain are not “radicals” or “socialists” or “the politically correct,” but the powerless people, some immigrants, but many more the descendants of the slaves sold out by “reasonable” Yankees before the Civil War, or of ex-slaves sold out during the post-Reconstruction era, or the disenfranchised and exploited victims of Jim Crow sold out by bipartisanship.

Yes, we’d all love to get along, particularly with non-crazy people on the center-right who are unhappy that their political vehicle the Republican Party fell into Trump’s hands like a large piece of ripe, nearly rotting, fruit. But ultimately Pope Paul VI had it right with his slogan: “If you want peace, work for justice.”

What Should Progressives Sacrifice on the Altar of Civility?