The Death of Civility

Author: Gary Hart

Civility is the name we give to mutual respect, decency, and honor among men and women.  Like civilization itself, civility evolves over time.  It is utilitarian in that societies function best when civility is the norm.  But its deeper meaning has to do with the nature of humanity.  When civility breaks down, societies fall apart.

Incivility in American politics did not occur overnight and it is not solely Donald Trump’s contribution.  The decline of civility began sometime back and has been increasing in momentum in recent months.

Books are being churned out analyzing this development and isolating causes.  The coarsening of popular culture—movies, music, television, and so on.  The conversion of big banks, under the liberation of deregulation, from sober temples of caution to casinos.  Trade, technology, and immigration shrinking opportunity for advancement.  Multi-culturalism eroding the dominant position of middle (white) Americans.  The rise of women in the workforce, in competition with men, the traditional wage earners and heads of household.

Shifting cultural tectonic plates first cause confusion, then anxiety, then resentment, then finally anger.  Angry people on a mass scale soon replace mutual respect with resentment.  Wide-spread, simmering resentment looks only for a spokesman, someone to give it a voice.

Political civility began to crack two or three decades ago.  Coded language was used to give resentment a voice.  “States’ rights” was invoked to express resentment at national civil rights legislation.  The long hair of 60s hippies was, curiously, adopted by Vietnam vets and blue collar workers in protest against powerful elites.

Resentment requires an object.  It does not operate in a vacuum.  Someone is to blame, and too often that is true.

The new media, first non-stop partisan cable, then the startling rise of an array of social media, caused traditional media outlets, print and electronic, to abandon professional standards and join the mad hunt for “the story” at the cost of the privacy of public servants and eventually the very caliber of those willing to seek office.  Those traditional media outlets, driven by professionalism and ethical standards, began to wither even before being lampooned by Sarah Palin.

This perfect storm inevitably brought wide-spread resentment, political candidates proudly proclaiming their ignorance, and desperately voracious media outlets together in 2016.  Donald Trump didn’t invent all of this.  He was simply clever enough to stand outside, watch the storm gathering, and then give it voice.

To exhibit thoughtfulness, intelligence, magnanimity imagination, and a sense of understanding the future on the part of a candidate for national office is to risk ridicule and scorn poured on top of rejection.  For the forces of know-nothingness on the right, to warn of climate change is an insult.  To call attention to the decay of our public infrastructure is to foster “big government.”  To suggest we ought to pay for the public benefits we demand is socialism.


Once torn down, civility is not easily or quickly restored.  No single leader, however talented, can bring it back.  No new election in four years will restore us to the ranks of a sober, thoughtful, respected and respectful nation.

We are in danger of following nations of former times into the ranks of decline and irrelevance.  We must think about this and discuss it before the trend becomes irreversible.

7 Responses to “The Death of Civility”

  1. Paul G Says:

    “To exhibit thoughtfulness, intelligence, magnanimity, imagination, and a sense of understanding the future on the part of a candidate for national office is to risk ridicule and scorn poured on top of rejection.”
    – Gary Hart, 5-18-2016

    In January 2014 – more than a year before candidates declared for the presidency – four souls gathered in Boston to publish an already twice-built website for community leaders to learn the unfiltered truth of their JFK apostle and potential candidate; but doubt triumphed.

    One of the four had been featured in the Patriot Ledger on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination as a 3-years’ old hugging the great man’s ankles as his father showed the then-congressional candidate the PR ropes. But now, he declared himself “a conservative law scholar” who quickly made it clear he did not believe in our mission.

    As he prepared to leave he insisted “the truth doesn’t matter; all that matters is what people believe,” despite our demonstration of two recent examples disproving the fallacy. Despite the site-builder’s protests that he was not impacted by the “know-nothing” lawyer, he refused to set a follow-up date to publish the site … until November 2016.

    In the absence of an active circle of informed friends, vultures of ridicule and scorn won.

    In the absence of the precious two years’ time to become enlightened and overcome destructive myths via the site, Boston’s community leaders – and their long-time national contacts – remained and remain in the dark, still believing even lawyer “know nothings.”

  2. Paul G Says:

    Correction: “… even when given a blank check (!) until November 2015.”

  3. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    Welcome back!

    A very good study in the Death of Civility would be to reacquaint ourselves with the novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Dramatic as it is, I believe it is an apt metaphor for what is happening to too many of us. That story did not end well.

    Our society in general has been outward looking and has paid very little attention to what subtle reality may exist just under the skin. Religion tries to address this, medicine and psychology may have shed some additional light on the subject and yet it does not appear to have helped us much. We have the record of many failed civilizations to attest to this.

    People of vision have risen over the course of human history and at best their vision was helpful for a brief period of time and at worse case their vision was co-opted by lesser personalities and turned into an instrument of oppression.

    As a people, I maintain that we need to turn inward in the spiritual sense. We need to find that part of us that is unchanging regardless of what external forces are applied to our outer shell. Once discovered, we need to bring this unchanging part of ourselves to the fore. We may find that it is in fact what we truly are and not the illusion that appears to surround it. We may find that the illusion is all that separates us from one another and we might have a chance of success in reviving civility without coercion.


    Good that our good Senator is back , and trust refreshed, no pun intended !

    Talking of trust , there is the nub of this. No trust by the electorate of the

    Leadership . Lack of trust by the public of the police .Less trust by the viewer of

    the media. So the voter does not vote , or says they are all the same .Looks over

    his or her shoulder ,and does not feel safe. Looks at the TV and it does not make

    sense. And there the gap is filled. In a society that has become an economy , a

    player in that market place , is the demagogue or ideologue and then, a lot of hot

    air !

    Civility is like chivalry of old , it is old .But old could become the new

    young. The up side, of the down side, of the new left illiberal tendency to so

    called ” no platorm ” speakers, not wanting to hear them , is that most of those

    people the protesters do not want to hear , are the speakers who most offend.

    It is not a solution , but therein lies hope .The younger generation of today and

    tomorrow have perhaps had enough of the loud and cruel and vacuous. Jerry Springer

    IS their Johnny Carson, and the only way is up.

    Maybe those of us who remember the year we saw the candidacy of our good

    Senator Hart implode , when I was but a youth and yet remember it well and regret

    it too , shall yet see the promise of his opponent, George Bush senior , of

    ” a kinder , gentler nation. “

  5. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    Some pictures unhelpfully distort, sensationalize and sabotage. Other really are worth thousands of meaningful words. For me, this photo of Colorado Senator Gary Hart, “a son of Kansas workers” as he called himself in his 1984 Democratic National Convention speech, earnestly conferring on public policy with West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, a scion of the .01% (albeit from the Democratic Party camp) illustrates the theme of societal civility to which Senator Hart adverts in his current blog post:

    A photo that means a lot to me is also from that “other country” past: One in which a conservative Republican (Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California), a liberal Democrat (Alan Cranston, then California’s senior U.S. Senator) and Bernie Sanders-type social democrat (my Dad, Dr. Gerald F. Jacobson), could all fraternally cooperate in the public interest — in that instance at the 1974 ground-breaking of the (partially federal and state government funded) Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Culver City, California. See

    The three who struck a pose with shovels are all gone now, but as Senator Hart alludes in his customarily deft synthesis of the now tumultuous political landscape, we would be a much better country if their type of mature “adult” collaboration had endured. Alas the Reagan Revolution (which far outlasted President Reagan’s 2 terms and persists to the present day) killed such comity. And that in turn caused virtually all of America’s governmental institutions to cease functioning properly. Two examples: Instead of humane hospital or community mental health care, America’s jailors and prison guards (of all unqualified people) now house (and routinely abuse) most of our nation’s severely mentally ill citizens. And instead of clean drinking water, asinine Michigan government personnel (aided by complicit federal EPA officials) delivered the residents of Flint Michigan lead-poisoned tap water.

    But (on the bright side) PERHAPS this baleful era for the American body politic is now ending. I see the 2016 dual insurgencies in both parties as (likely) doing so:

    • Bernie Sanders’ campaign/movement is chastening (if not overthrowing) what I call the neo-liberal Democrats’ “unbearable Republican-liteness of being”. And

    • Donald Trump’s campaign/movement is wresting the Republican Party from the death grip of the Bushes and neo-conservatives and realigning the GOP into a party that is (judging by Trump’s populist, protectionist and isolationist rhetoric anyway — the credibility of which remains to be seen) more aligned with the interests of everyday Americans and blue collar workers.

    As I see it, both insurgencies are being fueled by a massive wave of popular support from less advantaged people: those who elites on a bipartisan basis have for several decades remorselessly thrown to the wolves of Wall Street and (unconscionably and without any vote whatsoever) placed into jobs- and wage competition with the world’s poorest people. And, unlike during the Cold War when opening U.S. market to Japanese autos in the 1960s, for example, was seen as a prudent anti-communist measure, since December 1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved) there is no realpolitik or other national interest justification for our free trade policies. Indeed the main beneficiary is our longstanding geopolitical rival China, which still has a totalitarian Communist political structure.

    Americans have become appalled by the erosion of our nation’s sovereignty and associated labor-market control, inherent in such free trade agreements and the manner in which the globalized economy will have a predictable stagnating effect on Americans’ wages and living standard for centuries (ie. until some future millennium in which wages throughout the entire world become level).

    Indeed, electorates in all western democracies have caught on to the truth of something that Senator Hart said in his vastly under-appreciated 1998 book titled The Patriot: Gary noted that beginning in earnest with the advent of the Reagan administration too many if not most of our business elites had become “pin-striped barbarians”. Indeed he underscored this moral indictment by incorporating one of the words in the book’s subtitle: “An Exhortation to Liberate America From the Barbarians”.

    Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase for this same cohort was “malefactors of great wealth.” FDR called them “economic royalists”, a term Hart echoed in his 1984 Convention speech (“We must defeat the economic royalists…”). Senator Sanders derisively calls all of them “the billionaire class” (deliberately failing to note that at least a scant few, such as Michigan’s Ronda Stryker, are, in sum, virtucrats). Hillary Clinton (along with all Republican pols) calls the malefactors “my friends”. Speaking of photos of ground-breakings, here’s Hillary at the 2005 Goldman Sachs ground-breaking in NYC: (Not exactly good PR for her now.)

    And of course, Donald Trump calls these selfish elites “my peers” (and not entirely facetiously: “killers”). And yet (in addition to being a near-xenophobe- and-bigot) Trump now audaciously claims to be (in sum) an unbossed unbought 1% quasi-class-traitor or at least genuine (Kennedy-esque type?) practitioner of noblesse oblige. His (initial) self-funding of his campaign (a feature of his political “brand” he is now evidently in the process of undermining by fund-raising from the 1% “donor class” usual suspects) lent some credence to this claim even though there is nothing I know of in his background that suggests he’s ever before displayed any concern for the well being of the common man or advancement of the common good in his entire life (unless you want to count that NYC ice-skating rink he fixed). On the contrary.

    The most trenchant, credible and (unlike my own take sometimes) non-polemical analyses of the current serious political upheaval I’ve been able to find is an article titled: Globalization and Political Instability: How the transformation of the world economy shook up Western politics, written by a fellow named David W. Brady, who is a political science professor at Stanford.

    I’m not an attorney who has ever advised elite corporate clients entrenched in the global economy “as we currently know it” but if I were to start doing so I would first:

    • inform them about the increasing shaky ground on which they are standing politically (given the backlash against globalization, which is just beginning — Trump doesn’t repeatedly mention inducing Apple to bring the jobs manufacturing I-Phones home from China for nothing); and secondly:

    • commend strategies to radically reform globalization as we’ve known it to something much more closely resembling the ideals envisaged by the founders of the UN in the immediate post-war years.

    Those ideals have essentially been hijacked and corrupted by the 1%. And the corporate elite should now cooperate with the new political bosses (assuming, as I do, that Hillary will fall by the wayside and that the next president will be either Bernie Sanders or, alas now much more likely: Donald Trump) to undo much if not all of the 1% elites’ (frankly scarily over-reaching) world economy handiwork, and realign it with the public interest. It’s plainly in their own enlightened self-interest so to do.

    “Greed is good” is out. New rules emphasizing corporate citizenship and a new bottom line (where all society’s stakeholders prosper) is in. What Sea World announced back in March (“SeaWorld Shuts Down Killer Whale Shows, Bowing to Criticism” ) is a flyspeck example of what the entire corporate elite must now do on a world-wide basis and across-the-board in the decade or two just ahead. Or risk a real revolution, not just a Sanders’ style wholly incremental political revolution or a Trump style evolution of the Republicans into a quasi-populist, protectionist and isolationist party.

    What I will say about the current instability that David W. Brady won’t is that the size of the risk and nature of the potential revolution if corporate elites “waive off” the current voter revolt (and take false comfort in the propaganda bilge of their kept “pressitutes” in the mainstream media) — eg. patriotic American versus insurrectionary French style — is highly uncertain.

    What my read of the lessons of world history does teach, including those of the French Revolution imparted 4 decades ago by then Cal Berkeley (now UCLA) history professor Lynn Hunt (the lessons of American history not so much but these are not ordinary times) is that “hell hath no fury” like “everyday people” scorned. If and when the tumult arrives here, it will feature a politically hybrid left-right convergent formation, will make the Occupy Movement look like a picnic and will not be nearly so easily repressed by the 1%’s political minions.

    Maybe it’s because I grew up with him, but I hearken to Walter Cronkite’s tagline: “That’s the way it is.” FWIW.

  6. The Age of Trump: Graham, Madison, and Hart Weigh In | socibuz Says:

    […] Hart — former Senator, former leading presidential candidate, ongoing defense expert and blogger. He writes about what the fraying of civility has meant, in practical terms, to today’s operational […]

  7. Paul G Says:

    Six weeks before we lost Eli Wiesel, a great listener, author and teacher to power on our behalf – of the lessons of history we must forever remember – our honorable host wrote “The Death of Civility,” excerpted as follows:

    “Civility is the name we give to mutual respect, decency, and honor among men and women … But its deeper meaning has to do with the nature of humanity. When civility breaks down, societies fall apart … Shifting cultural tectonic plates first cause confusion, then anxiety, then resentment, then finally anger. Angry people on a mass scale soon replace mutual respect with resentment. Wide-spread, simmering resentment looks only for a spokesman, someone to give it a voice … Resentment requires an object. It does not operate in a vacuum … We are in danger of following nations of former times into the ranks of decline and irrelevance. We must think about this and discuss it before the trend becomes irreversible.”

    ‘The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference’ – Eli Wiesel

    “We must never forget,” became the mission of a teenager imprisoned in Nazi death camps, Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016), who survived to become an eloquent and unflinching witness to the Holocaust’s crimes against humanity; a prolific writer of novels, plays, essays, and memoirs; and a teacher, scholar, orator, moral philosopher, and human rights champion for whom the mass slaughter of Jews during World War II became the raw material for, and driving force behind, a lifetime of activism. Mr. Wiesel, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who taught at Boston University for about four decades, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

    In awarding him the 1986 peace prize, the Nobel committee praised Mr. Wiesel as a “messenger to mankind whose message is not one of hate and revenge, but of brotherhood and atonement . . . a man who has gone from utter humiliation to become one of our most important spiritual leaders and guides.”
    His overriding aim, the committee said, was to “awaken our conscience, because our indifference to evil makes us partners in the crime.” In 1985, an angry Mr. Wiesel declined the President Reagan’s invitation visit a Bitburg cemetery where Nazi SS officers were interred.

    Mr. Wiesel rarely showed signs of mellowing or compromising his principles. Disputes with other public figures wrestling with the same issues he did were not uncommon, as Mr. Wiesel confessed in print.

    One question above all haunted him: How could the God he worshiped have allowed such suffering (war, genocide, torture, starvation, poverty, disease) to happen, and how could humans inflict such atrocities on one another while so many did nothing to stop them?

    In his book, Open Heart, he wrote: Jewish law teaches that “death is not meant to guide us,” he reflected after his 1982 heart-bypass operation. “Its life that shows us the way.”Ultimately the choice is God’s, he decided.
    Meanwhile, “My life unfolds before me like a film,” he mused. “Landscapes from my childhood; adventures in far away, sometimes exotic places; meetings with masters; have I performed my duties as a survivor? Transmitted all I’m capable of? Too much; perhaps?”

    Asserting that he still had many projects to complete, Mr. Wiesel sounded a more hopeful note. Every moment granted to him post-surgery “is a new beginning,” he marveled. “If life is not a celebration, why remember it?”

    Joseph P. Kahn (excerpted from obituary by Joseph P. Kahn, Boston Globe, July 2, 2016)

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