Sunset of Civility

Author: Gary Hart

Even some of us described as “liberal” by the media—that is tolerant, open-minded, experimental, socially concerned—have a conservative side.  Mine has to do with public life and public institutions.  It is offensive for an elected official to use profane language in public and against political opponents…including Donald Trump.  And the chambers of Congress are not the venues for making social commentary about gender by breaching dress codes for those elected to serve there.

Trump’s vulgarities are cited as justification for vulgar language.  Vulgarity does breed vulgarity.  But falling into that trap brings anyone using vulgarity down to his level.  He wins.  You lose.  Does profanity elevate the dialogue, or is it merely a jazzy way to spin up the anti-Trump base?  Do night club style dresses on the floor of the Senate genuinely send a powerful gender message, as some have commented, or does it diminish the Senate as an august deliberative body?

So this is my conservatism.  To be sworn in and to serve for years in the Senate, especially at an early age, was well beyond my aspirations.  I felt awe for the institution and even greater awe at serving there.  To me, the White House, the Capital, and the Supreme Court are the temples of democracy, the symbols of all that the Constitution has created.  Not all have the highest secular respect for them.  I do.

Donald Trump possesses none of that respect. Does that provide those who oppose him license to descend to his level?  Not at all.

Perennial jokes are made about those entering the last quarter of the game of life decrying the chaos into which society has fallen and reminiscing about the good old days of decency, respect, and decorum, and to dismiss them as creepy old codgers.

Times change and realities change with them.  But some things are true and lasting standards of behavior that abide.  Decency, mutual respect, maturity, all form the core of civilized society.  Barbarians in high office do not justify crass behavior in others.  There are standards of civility that must be exhibited even in vulgar times.

So there you have the conservative views of an aging liberal.  The conservatism advocated here has much less to do with politics and much more to do with respect for the cathedrals of democracy.  This has become more important than usual in the age of a president surrounded by those who publicly advocate crashing it all down.  This isn’t any kind of conservatism any of us is used to.  It is anarchism and it excites the so-called populists who wrongly think they have little to lose.

Forget about the “Progeny” mentioned in the Preamble to our Constitution to whom we owe a strong and vibrant government.  In an age of anarchism, who worries about what comes after the bonfires enveloping the institutions created by our Founders.

So, for those claiming representation of the Democratic party, to descend to the Trumpian level of vulgarity is to give him the victory over civility.  When those proclaiming liberalism join him on his level, they are joining him in the anarchy he seeks.

13 Responses to “Sunset of Civility”

  1. JD Kinnick Says:

    Its disappointing to see a lack of civility not just with President Trump, but with some on the Democratic Party side of the aisle also. Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s recent comments are completely unhinged. I would hope a senior member of congress(or two) would politely inform the freshman lawmaker that this type of behavior is unbecoming of the office she represents.

  2. Matthew Correia Says:

    I love this article and your blog. I wrote this write-up based on an interview I read with you about your presidential race.

    Politics has now changed, as you once said it would, to be like any other media spectacle. In the past, there was a focus on ideas(the point of idealism), rather than attempting to “get closer to people with ideas”(as the likes of Hillary Clinton did with her ever evolving positions on things like gay marriage and of course the ‘populist’ polices of Trump can be examined in the same way) Hart was one of the few remaining politicians who wanted people to come to his ideas. And it almost worked. We can take two independent conclusions from the scandal derailing his election:

    1.) This shows a sort of “moral evolution” in American politics. Hart was entitled to think he shouldn’t be under a “moral microscope” just because former presidents(like JFK and LBJ mentioned in the movies) were not put under this microscope, in fact they were incredibly promiscuous in office to the point that many of stories cataloging their ludeness have still not been uncensored to this day, doesn’t mean Hart ought to be. This interpretation is the one I would have had a decade ago for sure, shining a light on the media as the great arbiters and protectors of truth. However, I think Hart’s last speech at the end of the movie(about people needing their OWN moral compass) is incredibly important and resonates today. This is why this movie was made now, the Trump election proves this change is not “for the better” but truly is, while not a death to idealism, a major harm. Idealism IS NOT DEAD(look at Bernie Sanders) , however like Hart said in the movie, this sort of media examination stops some of the “best and brightest this nation has to offer” from running for office.

    2.) The second conclusion you can take is that this election is the “death” of Americans having their own moral compass. Hart’s scandal, with less proof and seriousness than Trump’s “pussy grabbing”, was handled in an idealistic way, asserting that privacy in personal relationships was historically respected and it was not right to remove that privacy. Because, beyond crimes, these sort of “moral inconsistencies” are not disqualifiers for a candidate running for office. The whole process failed to consider the personal status of Hart’s marriage. The fact that his wife is still with him to this day, and her talk about “allowances” shows that they do not have a traditional relationship.

    Trump, on the other hand, simply brashly brushed off his rape accusations(a literal crime, far worse than the infidelity shown by Hart) with demagoguery and “charisma”. His base ate up his talk of “locker room talk”. So this is the result of the higher media pressure, now the presidency is an award for the Best Bullshitter. No longer are ideas at the centerpiece. If you can’t see the negative side to this, and how brilliantly the Frontrunner brought these issues to mind, then I express sympathy for your tastes.

    The whole thing eerily reminds me of Plato’s Ship of Fools.

  3. Gary Hart Says:

    Response to Mr. Correia: If I ever used the phrase “moral microscope”, I shouldn’t have. But morality is too narrowly defined if it is code for sexuality. Some very moral leaders have had complicated personal lives, the details of which are no one’s business. The issue is loss of privacy. People of talent and quality simply will not submit to press violation of their privacy, and they shouldn’t. And I don’t believe Mrs. Hart has ever talked about “allowances”, whatever that means. We have been married 60 years, longer than Trump;s three marriages combined. She and I have never believed in “allowances”, whatever that means. Whether I did, or did not, demonstrate “infidelity” is no one’s business. GH

  4. Matthew Correia Says:

    Senator Hart,

    I agree that it shouldn’t be anyones business. My point is that the media is sort of “getting what they asked for” and hating it in President Trump. This is the political climate that also affected your campaign, slander, set-up, or whatever you call it. Indeed, talented people are not running for the office largely because of the erosion of privacy.

    I apologize I for any inaccuracies regarding the details feel free to remove any of them from the record(I must have read the comment about ‘allowances’ from an erroneous source).

  5. Matthew Correia Says:

    And in relation to this article, this erosion of quality, ideals, and roots can be seen as well in the general “lack of civility” you bring up. It does bring cause for worry, I hope we are not too far gone.

  6. Brian McCarthy Says:


    I disagree that it is “conservative” to require standards of decency. In fact, I’d say liberals have the market cornered on it. Senator Joe McCarthy was conservative – he had no such standards and dragged the US Senate into the mud to the extent that they eventually censured him. The current “President” is conservative, or at least falls on the right wing side of the spectrum. Is he decent? He is not.

    I’m not sure why you imply that respect for public institutions such as the US Senate is in any way conservative. My life’s experience, and I was born in 1975, is that conservatives do NOT respect public institutions, do not respect public anything. It is liberals who respect the public sector and public institutions, and conservatives who hate all government that is not centered on the military or national security,

    Respect for the cathedrals of democracy is called liberalism.

    Conservativism is respect for cathedrals of institutional power over individuals.

    I rarely disagree with you, sir. But this time, you are wrong.


  7. Bill Pruden Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflections on the increasing lack of civility–on both sides of the aisle–in the public arena. For those of us who have followed your career going back to your days as the creative strategist for the McGovern Presidential campaign, these thoughts are less the “conservative views of an aging liberal” than the latest in a series of expressions and actions of a public servant and statesman one of whose central hallmarks has been the importance, almost the sacredness of the process- formal and informal – that makes the American constitutional experiment so distinctive. The current climate certainly makes it tempting to fight fire with fire but at the same time, I would assert that public officials, elected representatives, have history based responsibilities that go beyond the here and now. Indeed, in addition to serving the nation in a way that will provide for future generations, they are in every case picking up a banner first held aloft in Philadelphia in 1776 and again in 1787 and then passed down from generation to generation, in war and peace, in good times and in bad. They are the latest in a series of representatives of “We the People” and their efforts must honor their fore bearers. Nobody is saying that politics has never seen ugly before but that does not mean that we should abandon the effort to make it what it can be. We must recognize that the process matters and we must try and honor those who risked so much before us. We–those who serve, and those who are being served–and represented–must never forget that. You never have and for that and for reminding the rest of us of how important that is, I thank you.

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    Often wrong, but never in doubt, is my motto Brian. There are at least as many definitions of conservative as there are of liberal. My meaning here had to do with civility, decorum, respect for institutions and so forth, not ideological conservatism. There are appropriate forms of discourse and inappropriate ones. The ones I cited were inappropriate…in my judgment. GH

  9. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Interesting post. And even more interesting comments back and forth. But, the motto of this blog is “In matters of style swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” Not quite sure how dress code became a matter of principle.

  10. Gary Hart Says:

    My only response, Neil, is that how discourse in a democracy is conducted is often as important as the discourse itself. I doubt the Constitutional Convention would have reached a result if delegates had resorted to vulgarities and obscenities. I may be the last old codger in this modern age who cares about standards of decency, decorum, and respect. These are principles, not matters of mere style, for me. GH

  11. Neil McCarthy Says:

    I’m with you on discourse but not on dress codes, and as to the latter, I’m not quite sure who you had in mind.

  12. Gary Hart Says:

    Neil, I was referring to a new lady Senator who wore a a nightclub outfit to symbolize liberated women or something like that. Just my judgment that it was inappropriate for the occasion and location. GH

  13. Brian McCarthy Says:

    Senator, I appreciate your drawing the distinction. One of my pet peeves is the suggestion that conservatives are more patriotic than liberals.

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