Viewpoint: Civility Is Overrated

Politics doesn’t need to be more nice; it needs to be more real

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Jeff Haynes / Reuters

Vice President Joe Biden makes a point in front of Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan and moderator Martha Raddatz during their debate in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 11, 2012

What ever happened to civility in politics? That lament is getting louder these days. (Though never quite as loud as the TV shoutfests like last week’s vice-presidential debate that prompt it.) Hobbesian campaign ads — nasty, brutish and short — are making the airwaves toxic. Professional polemicists are infecting the culture with outrageous claims and slanders. If tonight’s presidential debate gets ugly — the Obama camp is promising more feistiness, and in a controversy over the rules, moderator Candy Crowley is promising to pose candidates challenging questions — we’ll hear the lament anew.

Yet for all this, the notion that we need a more civil politics is only half right — and the half that’s wrong is dangerously wrong.

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Civility is hot right now. Organizations across the U.S. are springing up to promote more civil discourse. Some of these initiatives arose in the aftermath of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Others have been under way for many years. To be sure, civility and politeness are preferable to coarseness and snarkiness, and a conversation is nicer than a screaming match. It’s certainly possible to have fierce disagreements in a respectful tone. That’s what we teach our children, and it seems our political leaders should be held to at least that standard. The problem is, focusing on civility makes us pay disproportionate attention to the part of politics that’s rational. Which is tiny. Democracy is not just about dialogue and deliberation; it’s also — in fact, primarily — about blood and guts. What we fear, what we love, what we hate, how we belong: this is the stuff of how most people participate in politics, if they participate at all.

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That’s certainly been the case with the grassroots segment of the Tea Party and the shorter-lived Occupy movement. If war is “politics by other means,” as Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously put it, then these two half-articulate expressions of populist anger remind us that politics is war by other means. Humans by nature fight over privilege, status and power. We engage in battles that challenge identities and threaten interests — and thus excite passions.

It’s right to want to convert that combative instinct into nonviolent expressions like legislative action. But it’s wrong to imagine that the instinct itself can be legislated out of existence. The Constitution our framers gave us did not ask that we be mild or moderate; it anticipated and channeled our immoderation.

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The danger with pushing for more civility is that it can make politics seem denatured, cut off from why we even have politics. As a Democrat, I want to see more anger, not less, about today’s levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration. I want that anger to swell into a new Progressive Era. And as an American, I need to understand better the true sources of anger and fear on the right and the ways those emotions and intuitions yield political beliefs. For all the formulaic shouting in our politics, we don’t often hear the visceral, emotional core of what our fellow citizens on the other side are trying to express.

Instead of making a fetish of civility, then, let’s get to that core. What’s undermining your sense of place? Who do you blame for your condition? Why does this policy offend you so? This kind of moral engagement can get plenty uncivil. But if it’s honest, it can create understanding, maybe even empathy, and a respect that surface courtesy sometimes belies. We Americans are stuck with one another. The best way to make that a virtue isn’t to have more polite arguments but to have less superficial ones.