tags: politics, public history, debate, Civility
Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
Joe biden has fond memories of negotiating with James Eastland, the senator from Mississippi who once declared, “I am of the opinion that we should have segregation in all the States of the United States by law. What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”
Recalling in June his debates with segregationists like Eastland, Biden lamented, “At least there was some civility,” compared with today. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition; the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Biden later apologized for his wistfulness. But yearning for an ostensibly more genteel era of American politics wasn’t a gaffe. Such nostalgia is central to Biden’s appeal as an antidote to the vitriol that has marked the presidency of Donald Trump.
Nor is Biden alone in selling the idea that rancor threatens the American republic. This September, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who owes his seat to Senate Republicans depriving a Democratic president of his authority to fill a vacancy on the high court, published a book that argued, “In a very real way, self-governance turns on our treating each other as equals—as persons, with the courtesy and respect each person deserves—even when we vigorously disagree.”
Trump himself, a man whose rallies regularly descend into ritual denunciations of his enemies, declared in October 2018, as Americans were preparing to vote in the midterm elections, that “everyone will benefit if we can end the politics of personal destruction.” The president helpfully explained exactly what he meant: “Constant unfair coverage, deep hostility, and negative attacks … only serve to drive people apart and to undermine healthy debate.” Civility, in other words, is treating Trump how Trump wants to be treated, while he treats you however he pleases. It was a more honest description of how the concept of civility is applied today than either Biden or Gorsuch offered.
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