You do not need me to tell you that American political discourse is being soured by extraordinary discharges of vitriol, rancor and spleen, or to explain that these discharges are occurring because of tectonic shifts in the deep structure of American politics. Both of the political parties have lost control of their constituencies, the established teachers (i.e. journalists and professors) have lost control of public doctrine, and a great many plebeians are, in consequence, as touchy as a beehive and looking for a fight.
Amidst all of this Sturm und Drang, you have also, no doubt, heard the reedy keening of the fretful funkers who are wringing their hands and pleading for a “restoration of civility.” (A funker is a man who funks, funking being failure due to trepidation or alarm. The deep history of this word “funk” is uncertain, but it is not the same as the history of the other word “funk,” meaning a bad or piquant odor [whence “funk music” or the adjective “funky”]. There is nothing funky about the fretful funkers of whom I speak here).
Bemoaning tumultuous political discourse is, as always, a specialty of the genteel Right, for whom the word civility means gentlemanly comity between political rivals. That these fretful funkers have, to date, maintained their gentlemanly comity with a sly policy of gracious surrender and dignified retreat is not my topic here. My topic is the true nature of political civility, and my purpose is to explain that politeness in dealing with political rivals is not the essence of political civility.
Politeness is often useful as an ancillary to political civility, but it is not the essence. It is quite possible to have political civility without much in the way of politeness, and quite possible to have politeness without much in the way of political civility.
Political civility exists between men who differ in political opinion and yet respect each other as political equals. They honor each other as men in secure and equal possession of the political rights of a common citizenship, and they do this even when they do not honor each other as men in secure and equal possession of the the political virtues of good sense, prudence and common decency.
By political rights, I mean the right to voice political opinions and the right to cast votes and otherwise participate in the political process. Political civility therefore consists in letting even fools have their say, and letting even scoundrels cast their votes, simply because these fools and scoundrels are entitled to do so as citizens. Political civility does not require me to praise the wisdom of the fool or the probity of the scoundrel. It does not place me under an obligation to clap when he has spoken, say fine things when he is mentioned, or consent to leave him unsupervised in the company of my daughter.
Political civility obliges me to grant that his political rights are indefeasibly his, and to resolve, therefore, to keep my hands off of them.
There is, for instance, a large and luxurious house that I pass on one of my evening walks, and in the front yard of this house there has for some time been a sign announcing the owner’s fulsome welcome to all immigrants and refugees. The sentiment strikes me as foolish, and also fatuous in a neighborhood that is (unlike mine) so stoutly fortified by high property values. If you were present as I walked past that sign, you might hear a snort of disgust or a sniff of distain, but you would not see me tear the sign from that spacious lawn or scatter its fragments on that pleasant street. That would be political incivility.
Political incivility is conniving to disenfranchise a fellow citizen by preventing him from enjoying some privilege of citizenship. Among those privileges is the privilege of placing a dumb and virtue-signaling sign before one’s house without fearing that the sign (or the house) will be destroyed.
Many Americans identify disenfranchisement with the Jim Crow laws whereby Southern Whites suppressed Black voting between 1870 and 1965, but this was a peculiar case with little relevance to today’s ructions. Disenfranchisement is nowadays a matter of limiting access to speaking platforms, not ballot boxes. The method is, however, the old chicanery of writing rules of eligibility that disqualify or place extraordinary burdens on one’s political rivals
You have no doubt seen the editorial that was recently published in the New York Times by a philosopher named Bryan W. Van Norden. It was entitled “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience,” and in this editorial every example of “the ignorant” just so happed to be a writer with whom Professor Van Norden disagrees.
It was a piece of shabby reasoning by a fretful funker of the Left, but it was at the same time ominous.
It appears that Professor Van Norden no longer see conservative opponents as fellow citizens who have just as much right to vent shabby reasoning as he has. He would like to make them “second class citizens” by stripping them of political rights that he proposes to retain. This is because they fail Professor Van Norden’s literacy test and are “ignorant.”
I must confess that, despite my civil restraint in the face of that provoking yard sign, I am beginning to feel much the same way about the likes of Professor Van Norden. If someone were to stuff a sock in his mouth, I don’t suppose I would be first in line to pull it out.
And this, as I say, is ominous.
“A party becomes a faction when it begins to see its opponent as an enemy rather than a partner.”
In that same place, I quoted this line from James Madison:
“By faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or the permanent and aggregate interest of the community” (Federalist Papers 28).
The essence of our present incivility is not the stinking swirl of scurrilous words and vulgar images, although that is certainly a symptom. The essence of our present incivility is that Democrats see Republicans in Madison’s line, and Republicans see Democrats.
We are deep in the woods of factional politics, and in these dark precincts the counsel of fretful funkers is of no use at all.