Ethics & Public Policy Center

Why Civility is a Democratic Virtue

Published in Commentary Magazine on August 3, 2015



Craig Shirley, a public affairs consultant and author of a fine book on Ronald Reagan, has written an article titled, “In Defense of Incivility.”

Capturing a certain temperament one finds on the right these days, Shirley insists that civility is not only overrated; more civility is an outright threat to American democracy, “the last thing we need in American politics.” [emphasis added] He argues that civility is a “way to control the citizenry, by shaming them into silence when focused anger would serve the Republic better.” Civility, he says, is un-conservative and un-American, while American conservatism is “uncivil and intellectual.” Indeed, he adds, civility permits many great evils while incivility is the source of many wonders for which we should be grateful. (It’s no surprise that Shirley praises Donald Trump’s incivility and anger as contributions to the 2016 presidential contest.)

Civility is an important virtue that is poorly understood by some, I think, including Shirley and those (like the radio talk show host Mark Levin) who share his outlook.

Let’s start with the definition of incivility, which is rudeness, discourteousness, and impoliteness. Incivility derives from the Latin word incivilis, meaning “not of a citizen.” To be uncivil, then, is to act in ways that tend to put one at odds with what it means to be a responsible citizen.

There’s also considerable confusion among those who assume that civility is synonymous with lack of conviction and passion; that to be a civilized individual means to be devoid of principles and unwilling to fight for great causes. But, of course, one can be a vigorous and forceful advocate for liberty and justice without being uncivil. Nor does civility mean we don’t speak the truth, or call things by their rightful name, or shame anyone into silence, or call out nonsense when we see it. A person can be both civil and angry at injustice; Martin Luther King, Jr. showed that as well as anyone in recent American history. You need only read his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail — a masterpiece of American political and moral thought — to see this.

What civility attempts to do is to advance a certain mode of discourse, particularly when it comes to debates and disagreements with our fellow citizens. It assumes that in most cases – absent fairly extraordinary exceptions – basic good manners is what we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. Civility also helps inoculate us against one of the temptations in politics (and in life more broadly) — to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own. Civility is, as Stephen Carterhas written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. It is also something that is prized within the Christian faith. “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,” St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “so that you may know how to answer everyone.” And to the Galatians, Paul describes the fruits of the spirit as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Incivility is notably left off the list.

As for Mr. Shirley’s claim that a central tenet of conservatism is incivility: This is a bizarre assertion. There is nothing in conservatism that presupposes rudeness and boorishness. Think of the two most important figures in conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr. Both men were renowned for their grace, class, and good manners. They were remarkably and blessedly free of roiling resentments.

While often the target of vicious attacks, Reagan maintained a pretty charitable view of his political adversaries. “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents,” former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who worked as a political aide in the Reagan White House, quotes him as admonishing his staff. Even Mr. Reagan’s rare flashes of anger did not cross lines of decency or turn ad hominem.

As for Mr. Buckley: as Andy Ferguson reminds us in this article, after a nasty exchange with Gore Vidal in 1968, Buckley for the rest of his life “admitted to being ashamed of the moment — not merely for the lapse in manners but for allowing so crude a provocation to produce exactly the effect Vidal intended.”

But the great model to look to here, as he is in so many areas, is Lincoln. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinct quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”

Lord Charnwood, author of perhaps the greatest biography of Lincoln, said this about America’s 16th president:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength.

Very few of us are capable of emulating Lincoln in this way, but we do consider these qualities admirable and worth striving for. Craig Shirley, on the other hand, represents a current of thought on the right that apparently views these Lincolnian qualities — “With malice toward none, with charity for all” — as weakness, at least in political life. Populist rather than conservative, those who hold to this outlook dismiss individuals who speak favorably on behalf of civility as “elitists.” Moreover, they believe incivility is an American virtue, worthy of “three cheers.” They seem to think that what the American people are thirsting for in our politics – and from conservatives — is more anger, more crudity and more incivility.

They’re quite wrong, and the effort to turn conservatism into a bonfire of rage, a cavalcade of insults, is a disservice to conservatism and those who have represented it so well over the years.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

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