A Lack of Plain Old Good Etiquette Is Undermining Our Democracy

News at Home
tags: election 2016



John Baick is a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.


The tone and volume of our political culture discourse give Americans insight into the norms of our society, a reflection of our times. If one were to put up a mirror to our political landscape today, the images would be a disturbing but familiar kaleidoscope of tweeted sound bites, talk radio and cable news, speeches and Internet trolls. To find civility in the mirror, however, they would have to look very carefully for even a sign of life. 

It would be naïve to think that we are in the midst of something new. America as a nation emerged from a colonial period where we were factious to the point of bloodshed, our worst war was an internal conflict that we have still not resolved, debates about the proper balance of management and workers routinely ended in lethal violence, and the entire mythical decade of the 1960s produced a time and a year—1968—that makes us look relatively civil in 2016. But it can feel shockingly new to those whose living memories are limited to more recent years.

The impact of the Reagan years was terrible for many Americans, but the public pronouncements of the times were carefully anodyne. The shock of the Los Angeles Riots and Pat Buchanan’s almost literal call to arms at the 1992 Republican National Convention did not lead to chaos but instead helped elect a president whose first campaign was based on hope and optimism. And if Newt Gingrich’s decision to transform the Republican Party into a vehicle for permanent political war contributed to the spread of rhetorical toxicity, it did not penetrate too deeply into the popular culture of 1990s post-Cold War triumphalism and consumerism. George W. Bush, elected with his call for conservatism and compassion, advanced and capitalized on post-9/11 nationalism that ensorcelled many Americans until the levees broke around New Orleans. Through it all, at least in the living memories of many Americans, the public sphere seemed to be an arena of civility, and those who transgressed were noted and sanctioned accordingly. 

The presidency of Barack Obama has unquestionably been a catalyst of the incivility virus. His 2008 campaign was both racial and post-racial, and if it inspired a resurgence of the Democratic coalition, it also released the cultural Confederates in our attic.

Attacks on Obama have rarely been about the substance of his policies or actions. They have been about him, personally. He has become the Etch-a-Sketch of hatred, upon which wildly untrue and often bizarrely contradictory messages have been inscribed (one cannot be a fascist and a communist, any more than one can be a fan of the Yankees and the Red Sox). Although the question of whether American manufacturing is on the decline is one that can be debated by economists, the manufacture of political outrage has unquestionably been a growth industry in recent years.

This basic topic has consumed me since Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie” during President Obama’s first State of the Union address. It is difficult to suggest that this was causal, but there is certainly a strong correlation between this breach of decorum and the recent collapse in civility in American political life. This was the rhetorical equivalent of another South Carolina congressman, Preston Brooks, who physically attacked the abolitionist Charles Sumner in the Senate in 1856. Wilson soon apologized, but his entire subsequent career and celebrity status as a Republican fundraiser suggest that this crude moment made his career.

The birther movement, which first gave Donald Trump a political platform, came from the same womb that birthed Joe Wilson’s invective, the same place that fed the paranoid fantasies of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, whose conduct in the 2008 campaign seems as courteous as a Lincoln-Douglas debate today. It is about legitimacy and respect and almost literally blood. The racial connotations of the attacks on President Obama’s birth and citizenship, as well as the fear of Mexican rapists, is impossible to miss. This is not new for Trump, who became a major voice calling for the execution of those he deemed less than human during the Central Park jogger case. This is the essential lesson being taught to millions of Trump’s apprentices by the master of incivility.

When Trump first announced his candidacy in a surreal setting that was part mall, part hate speech, and mostly staged, I used the standard touchstones of American history to analyze the event: Huey Long and George Wallace came to mind immediately and I quickly assumed Trump would shake up the Republican field but drop out by February. The intellectual origins of Donald Trump’s worldview draws on many American traditions, most notably nativism and populism, but his slash and burn style is based on a deep reservoir of disrespect. Logic, history, efficacy, and ethics are all irrelevant. What matters is the hate and fundamental disregard of others: of their ideas, of their lives, of their identities, even their bodies.

Journalist Mike Wallace once warned Americans of the “hate that hate produced” in his documentary about Black Nationalism and specifically Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Donald Trump is the purest expression of hate that has ever been unleashed on American life: he is the id that incivility produced. One can see in the Never Trump campaign, the fretting of the Republican Party’s leadership, and Ted Cruz’s moralizing as efforts to impose the conservative superego, efforts that had some minor victories and serious defeats. And one can now increasingly see in the campaign of Bernie Sanders eerie parallels to Trump. The unifying factor in both campaigns is hatred of enemies real and imagined, of incivility raised to the level of moralizing that filled Preston Brooks’s heart and propelled his gold-tipped cane, of distrust of all. It starts with rude words. It ends in violence.

I desperately wanted to believe this was limited to national politics, but in less than one week, I experienced two events that brought home to me how corrosive our public discourse has become. The first was at a New England town meeting where a contentious social issue was being discussed. The issue had far more opponents than supporters, and the vote was a foregone conclusion, but there was still etiquette and rules to follow, requiring a public airing of support and opposition. A long line of speakers lined up to oppose, while only a handful rose up in support. As supporters spoke, the level of booing, hissing, and jeering reached a level I had never experienced – nor even imagined – in such a setting. There was a fundamental lack of respect, as opponents of the measure condemned the ignorance of the supporters, providing history and legal theory that were at odds with both history and law.

As a historian who is familiar with these issues, I kept thinking about adding context to the debate, but I knew that this audience would reject my words. And I was not just afraid of the loss for history, but afraid for my safety. Dozens of opponents of the measures stood and glared during the crowded meeting where the rest of the audience was seated. They crossed their arms, took off hats and coats, and looked over the crowd to see which of their neighbors were opposed to their view. I am not certain if they individually or collectively understood this, but their actions were designed to intimidate. I thought back to the fiery rhetorical traditions of the region, from the Puritan forefathers who were certain of God’s will and vengeance. I am reasonably certain that even John Winthrop, when he invoked the idea of a “city on a hill,” or Jonathan Edwards, who warned the members of his congregations that they were all “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” did not need large men rolling up their shirtsleeves over their biceps to add inflection to their words.

The second moment of shock was during a recent game of my daughter’s youth softball league. These games, which are low-key affairs coached by volunteers like myself, have been pleasant, except for New England’s famously inhospitable weather. But at one recent game, the other team’s assistant coach did not like the way I was coaching my team (in his defense, my main contribution is my ability to carry heavy equipment). A few times this year, I have had coaches from other teams offer me advice, and I took their counsel seriously because they clearly know the game: they suggested how a player should handle a position, informed me about rules violations or simply reminded me to have my coach’s ID visible.

But on this one day, the other team’s assistant coach, who was about ten feet away from me, was screaming at the top of his lungs about how “that is not the way the game is played” and “he doesn’t know how to play the game.” After a few innings of this, I walked over to him and quietly apologized for whatever I had done to offend him. I asked him to explain my errors directly to me, not to shout his comments so that the girls could hear. He lunged at me, and from just a foot away, screamed “I’m free to say anything I want to whoever I want.”

Dumbfounded, I stood there for a few seconds, then slowly walked away. I wondered what this irate man thought was appropriate conduct in front of children. I wondered what the kids in his dugout thought. I wondered what the parents sitting behind him thought. The kids and the parents just sat and stared during all of this.

Civility, which is the very foundation of ideas of rules and sportsmanship, was weakened that day. And the virus of incivility spread.



comments powered by Disqus