Civility Asleep

Author: Gary Hart

RespectTo declare the death of civility is, at least at this point, too dramatic and apocalyptic.  The time might come, however, in which its death in the American political arena could happen.  Thus, President Obama’s plea at last weeks prayer breakfast for those who believe in prayer to also believe in treating each other in the political arena with at least a degree of civility, respect, and decency.

It is fair to say that, at this moment, civility is asleep.  How else can we explain over-the-top allegations that the President is a socialist, or worse, when nothing he has done has even the taint of socialism.  His economic steps are either a continuation of Bush policies or investments to stimulate job creation and recovery.  How does calling this socialism advance any healthy agenda.

Some conservatives claim that ridiculous charges against Obama are no worse than liberal or left charges against Bush.  There is a small measure of truth in that.  As much as I disagreed with cutting taxes of the wealthy, especially in war time, the invasion of Iraq, deregulation of environmental safety, and letting Wall Street loose to create its own ruin, I don’t remember questioning President Bush’s patriotism or good intentions.  Others in my party did, however, and carried on ridicule of his military service well after it made any point.

But at its worst, I don’t recall any respectable figures on the progressive side suggesting he was a fascist, the rough equivalent of Obama’s alleged socialism.  There will always be those on both extremes who substitute ridicule and attack for constructive criticism.  And perhaps human nature is always thus.  Historians remind us of other bitter times in American political history when similar or worse behavior went on.

It, nevertheless, is a matter for hope that leaders of both sides and both parties will call out the extremists in their own ranks and disavow their conduct.  Probably won’t happen, because too many politicians think they need this radical energy bordering on hatred at election time.  But miracles do happen and men and women of good will, reaching across the aisle, even occasionally applauding presidential state of the nation speeches out of respect and civility, could reawaken it.  Or at the very least, they could create an example of civil leadership for us all.

28 Responses to “Civility Asleep”

  1. John Lofton, Recovering Republican Says:

    For-The-Record-Please: I hate “civility” but love God’s Law.

    John Lofton, Editor,
    Communications Director, Institute on the Constitution
    Host, “TheAmericanView” radio show
    Recovering Republican

  2. Gary Hart Says:

    Well, then, for Mr. Lofton may we say that God’s Law is asleep?

  3. Robert Crump Says:

    I am quite certain this will be an unpopular statement but I believe civility is likely dead; it certainly seems dormant for the foreseeable future and both parties are to blame for that erosion of civic virtue. I do believe the president has made an honest effort to revitalize the ideals of civility and open, honest debate but the nihilist right sees electoral opportunity in maintaining the status quo replete with accusations and recriminations.

    With that said, and I am sure this will be equally unpopular, for the first time in my life I am openly questioning the wisdom of perpetuating the Union when it seems her tired and dysfunctional institutions no longer meet the needs of the people. Whether that means we break up into more manageable nation-states, or convene a constitutional convention and reform those institutions remains less clear. What seems clear however is that the culture of gridlock and open corruption present in the city along the Potomac must come to an end. And soon.

  4. Bob Sampron Says:

    I think the answer to your question is found in the work of late historican Will Durant. He wrote, “Every form of government seems to perish by excess of its basic principle.” I think Madison invoked our founding principle in Federalist 10, in his assault on the “violence of faction.”

    Our basic principle is that the violence of faction will undo our government as it has so many other democracies. So, we contrived all sorts of government controls to prevent factions from gaining the upper hand, including the constitutionally questionable filibuster.

    Even so, the controls, and especially this one, support one faction over all others. It may support that faction over survival of the nation.

    This faction is a parasite sucking the life out of our nation, transferring our wealth and placing claims on our future labor to and for itself. This faction does so simply because we cannot move legislation through the Senate to stop it… all because of the filibuster…all because of this founding principle that fears the violence of faction.

    Because we fear the violence of faction, because we have a filibuster to prevent faction, we created the most dangerous faction of all: a plutocratic class.

    Alexander Hamilton has won it seems. We have an aristocracy calling the shots. Maybe we always have but didn’t know it until the Web 2.0-New Media generation. Maybe we now have the medium Marx predicted would allow the people of the world come to know they share a common interest. Hmm. I wonder.

    I think the cracks to civility radiate from a growing volcano of poverty. Remember, poverty creates powerlessness. When people have or perceive they have nothing left to lose, people rebel against whatever they perceive as mollifying forces used to keep them down. Civility may be perceived as one of those mollifying forces. I would be really worried if, quite suddenly, we saw a drop in church attendance over several months, religion being a primary mollifying force.

    These cracks to civility should caution us about the potential, devastating eruption that could follow if we sufficiently anger the volcano god called Revolution.

    When people perceive they have nothing left to lose, that’s when the monsters come out. And, I think we saw a few at the Tea Party convention this past weekend.

    We should be thankful the bullets are not flying yet… yet. And we must do something to undo the filibuster… lest the filibuster undo what civility and resulting peace we have left in our land.

  5. Tony Griffin Says:

    Civility is certainly “on the rocks.” But it seems to me the larger question pertains to the whole of civic virtue, of which civility is certainly a part but not the whole. Is civic virtue eroding as profoundly as it might seem or is the noise of Washington simply a warning sign rather than a symptom of an existing disease? If civic virtue is profoundly losing ground, how do we reverse the tide?

  6. Gary Hart Says:

    When people such as Mr. Crump and Mr. Sampron write as they do, it makes me question whether I was right to resist apocalyptic “death of civility” language. Both are thoughtful and clearly deeply concerned. But I must say, Mr. Sampron has hit a serious nerve. He has his constitutional history and his political analysis right and he is powerfully persuasive. Had I the power, I would send these thoughtful and deeply felt comments to every member of Congress, as well as the President. America has weathered quite a number of severe storms and my belief, and hope, is that our constitutional principles will help us weather this one. The test is not of our government but of ourselves.

  7. Angela Wheelock Says:

    I, too, wish that all members of Congress and the Senate could read these thoughtful comments. I am aware that, in politics, the ends have often justified the means. But what are the “ends” that the Republicans, particularly the right-wing of the party, have in mind? The demands for tax cuts and less government could only lead to deeper gaps between the rich and the poor and, ultimately, a sort of Third World Country in America with a government with no money to repair aging infrastructure, improve health care, the educational system, or a long list of other public priorities. I agree with the earlier blogger who said that powerlessness and poverty doesn’t bring out the best in people. What is much harder to understand is how people who are neither powerless nor poor want to harness this anger for their own ends. President Obama is one of the most civil of presidents. How sad that so few seem to be following his example and are answering his fairly modest agenda for change with rage. I fear for our country. Even more so, because I am now living in Canada where civility is not yet asleep. If civility is only sleeping, and not dead, how can Americans wake it up? That is the question many of us are pondering.

  8. Irina Bulkley Says:

    To Mr. Crump – I agree with you that the culture (and the political system as we know it) may (naturally or forcefully) have to come to an end. Whatever may emerge from that event or action, I surely hope it is not, however, the “break up into more manageable nation-states”. I happen to be Russian by birth and am proud to be an American, as well. I have lived through the break up that you are suggesting as a panacea and my personal opinion is very strong on that account: there may be a need for change of the political system (much like the collapse of the communist party in the former Soviet Union) but the break up of the Union itself (meaning the social, economic, indistrial and other “ties” of the Union States) would be ill advised. I am not sure what state you are from, but there are very few in the United States in America (if any, at all) that could make a decent existence by themselves. There is nothing wrong with the bonds of collaboration we have established between and among the states of our Union. I believe it is a political system (meaning the “ruling” of the existing two parties, for example) that may need to change. I am just thinking out loud, there can be more than one ways to accomplish this but breaking up the Union would be a wrong thing to do.

  9. Akira Bergman Says:

    Human settlements are essentially temporary agreements running on the availability of resources. Even cats form sisterhoods when resources are plenty. Humans can form more elaborate and longer lasting systems but they too are at the mercy of the instincts of survival. Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq once again have shown that human civility can be just a thin veneer.

    Civility may have left the USA long time ago and not even noticed in the noise of the plunder party. When justice is not served, it simmers under the veneer. For example the use of enormous amounts of dioxin on Vietnam missed the mainstream spirituality of the USA, but it has also eaten into its soft inner core subconsciously. The greedy and corrupt western financial elite are still trying to hide the injustice of the Iraq war, while it burns deep within the conscience of the society.

    Injustice eats into societies like it does to an individual. Injustice destroys families. USA have committed too many crimes to stand the coming upheaval of resource bottleneck. It has no spiritual integrity left. A similar argument applies to the global humanity. If we want to survive the coming bottleneck, we have to find a way of calming the storms in our souls. We have to choose spirituality and justice over the crude capitalist materialism. Otherwise we will all fall over the fast approaching cliff.

  10. Irina Bulkley Says:

    I strongly disagree that the the USA “has no spiritual integrity left”… it is sad to see generalizations like that.

  11. Michael Califra Says:

    H. L. Mencken once said that “every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.” While the citizens of some countries have more to be ashamed of than others, I am not as concerned with the lack of civility in Washington as I am about the failure of the Fourth Estate to call out the politicians responsible for the worst of it instead of just passing it on unchallenged.
    As Senator Hart has noted, there have been periods in US history that have (amazingly) seen worse. Having served in the Senate, he is probably more saddened by current state of affairs than those of us on the outside. I do get upset, however, when the Republicans are consistently and without any political consequence, ALLOWED to act like thugs by the Democratic majority in the name of comity and “gentlemen’s agreements.” If the Republicans want to be so completely irresponsible and obstruct governance over every piece of pork, or for no good reason at all, then Harry Reid should force them to stand on the senate floor and actually filibuster the old fashioned way. That alone would compel them to act with more civility.
    (By the way, I happened to see a snippet on the news of Sen. Hart with Secretary Napolitano a couple of days ago. I’m very glad to see the administration calling on his expertise.)

  12. Robert Crump Says:

    To All- I did not intend on being shrill, nor do I pretend that a break-up of the Union is desired, or some panacea that will solve all of our national afflictions. For the record, I am a thirty-two year old white male, A Democrat, born and raised in Illinois though currently a resident of Denver, CO, and a proud History graduate no less and so I know all too well perhaps that such talk can give alarm.

    If I had my prerogative I would prefer to see a convention called with the expressed purpose of reforming our failing institutions. Absent reform of the current system however, I am less certain what options we have available to us, and I fear that break-up of the Union will become an increasingly attractive option even though it clearly presents its own set of challenges.

    The one thing in particular that bothers me with the current system, and there are certain factors that are unavoidable that contribute somewhat to this issue, is the means by which federal outlays are distributed. Take Sen. Shelby from Alabama for example, this gentlemen seems intent on blocking 70 federal appointees unless the president relents and gifts to his state $45 billion for projects he earmarked in a previous budget.

    This approach by Sen. Shelby is preposterous and speaks a great deal to what is wrong with our federal system. It is especially preposterous when you consider his state on average receives roughly a $1.50 from the federal government for every dollar it contributes while my home state of Illinois, and my adopted state of Colorado, receives around seventy-five cents on the dollar.

    As I said, there are certain factors that contribute to this phenomenon that are unavoidable, such as social security distribution for example. One thing that is not unavoidable however is that the more populous, wealthier states invariably contribute a greater proportion of its wealth to less populous, less wealthy states, particularly those that house federal instalations catering to national defense.

    And when you consider that all but one of the so-called “red-state” falls into this category of welfare states (Texas being the exception), and that it is from these states that the cries of less government, more freedom, Obama is a Muslim socialist, Democrats are abortionist and traitors, etc, etc, springs forth most vociferously, then I naturally begin to question the bonds of affection with those folks.

    Sectionalism is not a desired trait in the American system, but it has always been part of the American fabric, having reared its ugly head from time to time with predictable results. I hope and trust Sen. Hart is correct, that we can weather this storm as we have in the past, and he is right, it really is a test of ourselves.

  13. Jeff Simpson Says:

    We are fraught with foreboding and so our political struggles intensify and civility wanes. Charles Sumner’s thrashing in 1856 must have elicited similar observations. Today, most elected officials put commercial lobbying interests above service to the nation by unequally bestowing earmarks upon their most generous constituents at the expense of sustainability and fairness. Demographic imbalances created thereby beget resentment, disdain, and cynicism towards the body politic. Reinvigoration of the political system will depend critically on the ability of a message of reason (this conveyance is the ultimate public service) to prevail in an arena designed for the sensationalistic, a rubric constructed (or ‘evolved’ if you wish to remove human motive) to favor incumbency, polarization, and the ten-second sound bite. Absent are stories of candidates resonating with messages of the sacrifices that lie ahead if we are to avert a precipitous decline in our standard of living and our status as a desireable emigration target, to name but two measures in which we as a nation take pride. Does our pride also keep us from admitting hard truths?

    Truths such as these: We must balance the budget; we must begin to repay our bond debt; we must curb the influence of big agra, big pharma, and dozens of other pernicious subverters of democracy; we must conserve resources; no more unilateral pre-emption; no more occupations; fewer overseas bases. The world will NOT take dollars for goods for ever.

    In the GOP, the chimeric relationship between the religious right and forces of avarice is entrenched. Both are united in their desire for power and control, and both are opposed to reason because of reality’s liberal bias. Packaging and selling this subterfuge with its moral verisimilitude to less discerning voters is a case study in Faustian moral cowardice. But try pointing that out to Bill O’Reilly. When incumbency is a business, even the Democratic leaders do not seem that interested in changing the system (filibuster removal excepted).

    Speakers of reason and truth will emerge. It is my hope that that they can follow a political and not a revolutionary trajectory.

  14. Neal Taslitz, Esq. Says:

    It has been said that once civility is lost, humanity will be the next thing that goes.

    Although civility may only be sleeping, I believe our leaders have a duty to warn those who have failed to be civil, particularly in matters of government discourse. When a congressman interrupts a presidential address by shouting “liar” at the president, and uses the notoriety of his act to raise millions of dollars–we have a real problem.

    It would have been helpful for the Speaker of the House to have warned the congressman and all those in atttendance that any further interruptions that were not proper, would result in the removal of that person, by the sergeant at arms. Failing to make any statement only encourages more attacks on civility.

    The antics of talk radio, and cable “news” have now influenced an ugly behavior within government. Unfortunately, more people like to watch a circus act than watch and listen to a process that they consider to be boring.

    Perhaps, if the clowns who continue to degrade what once was a system that was known for civility, are placed in the corner for a “time out” they might just grow up, allowing civility to survive.

  15. Michael Califra Says:

    To Robert Crump: Instead of bringing back the Articles of Confederation or engaging in a protracted, years-long battle over ideological flashpoints such as abortion that would surely invade any constitutional convention in this political environment, why not simply pressure Harry Reid to change the rules and abolish the filibuster, which is anti democratic anyway. That would go a long way toward repairing the broken senate.

  16. Irina Bulkley Says:

    To second Neal’s thoughts – I am personally very relieved to witness that President Obama begun to “place the blame” with those and there, where it belongs. Clearly, in his first year he was trying to be civil and respectful of the opposition, but they didn’t seem to appreciate it. And now they do need to be placed in the corner, and their clear lack of civility (and their often neanderthal views – of the system in particular and the world in general) must be exposed. Yes, it may be quite disgusting of a view for the “innocent observers” (meaning general public), but to the Democrats it will not show anything that we don’t already know well. To the rest (especially those who are still “undecided”) it will be a good point to remember in all the upcoming elections, if nothing else.

  17. Irina Bulkley Says:

    To Michael Califra: I not well enough versed in the governing laws to know exactly HOW it may be done, but I surely hope that there is some legal maneuver that can be made in order to ensure that the democratic reform moves ahead and the opposition can not stall (or worse yet stop) it (and other efforts in the future, too).

  18. Irina Bulkley Says:

    I am hesitant to introduce a thought that may be too controversial (and it is not my intent to invite or ignite any heated discussion, as I appreciate that the concept of democracy is sacred to the American people), but I wonder how much democracy is too much, and when there might be a time to start applying some restrictions?… When is (if ever) the time to say “this is where the need to account/ask for everyone’s opinion and vote stops, and the action begins to move forward what the people voted for (change) and what the majority feels is necessary? Personally, I’d say it’s about time. Again, it is my personal (and maybe slightly extremist) opinion, but it is about time to stop asking farmers about what’s best for health care, and homemakers about what to include in the energy policy. Nothing against the farmers, or the homemakers, but there has got to be a “body” of experts that is charged with making the decisions, and possibly without regard to the opinions of the farmers (in health care) and homemakers (in energy). Of course, I am moving towards admitting my personal fancy for finding an option of simply ending the Republican nonsense objection to just about every suggested change by somehow excluding them from the process, period. I suppose the House and the Senate were initially formed to serve in such role but it is obvious that the division is too deep there, too, to assure any meaningful progress.

  19. Irina Bulkley Says:

    To Robert Crump: I apologize for the use of what came across as an overly strong word (panacea), I didn’t mean to imply that you are suggesting the break up of the Union as such. And I do agree with you when you say “I am less certain what options we have available to us, and I fear that break-up of the Union will become an increasingly attractive option even though it clearly presents its own set of challenges”. I find myself at a loss for options these days, too, and just hope that it will not have to come to anything that affects the Union itself.

    Our great state of Colorado certainly has many benefits and strengths but still, it would not be able to sustain the “alienation” from others.

  20. Gary Hart Says:

    For those of you whose comments have focused on post-nation-state models of government, I recommend Martin van Creveld’s 1999 book The Rise and Decline of the State. Van Creveld, an Israeli military historian best known for anticipating the rise of irregular warfare as early as 1972, goes well beyond my own views, but provocatively suggests that a massive wave of privatization of previously public responsibilities (defense, gated communities, private police forces, and much else) signals the decline of the state as it has been known since the mid-17th century. From my point of view, the United States will remain the strongest nation on earth for as far toward the 22nd century as we can see.

  21. Akira Bergman Says:

    While Mr. Creveld may have anticipated the rise of irregular warfare and decline of the nation-states, he failed to see the rise of the information age and the spread non-governmental humanitarianism. Like the feudalisation of the middle ages ended in a rubble under the cannons of technology, the walls of the corporations will become transparent under the light of the information age.

    I can not see how the USA or any other nation state will survive given their current declining state. I think a global unification is unavoidable. The fast advancing information age and the climate change are more than enough to topple them within a decade or two.

  22. steve harvey Says:

    In response to Senator Hart’s original point:

    Civility depends on an ability to listen to and compromise with one’s ideological opposites, which in turn requires the humility of recognizing that we live in a complex and subtle universe. This is a diverse nation, with diverse views. Deep convictions may be noble, but inflexible insistence on their exclusive inclusion in public policy is not. We can and should strive mightily to advance the ideas that we believe best serve the public interest, the policies that we believe are most fair and reasonable, but incivility goes hand in hand with intransigence, neither of which are desirable.

    Even when we are certain in our hearts of “being right,” we should not seek the satisfaction of dying in agony on crosses lining the Appian Way, wondering if the moral victory of having shouted “I am Spartacus!” was really the best of all deals to cut. Rather, we should get on with the business of enjoying lives made slightly better by our best efforts, while we continue in good humor and good faith to endeavor to improve them yet more.

    Compromise doesn’t just allow us to coexist without being polarized into a perpetual, alternating condition of those in power and those out. It also allows us to move past the ideological disputes and into the detail-laden practical business of solving problems. Ideological purists at both ends of the political spectrum reduce a truly complex world to a handful of platitudes, from which they derive their respective prefered policy sledge-hammers. But, in reality, the challenges we face require a more diverse set of more precise tools.

    We need to be a nation more like the NASA engineers and scientists depicted in the movie “Apollo 13,” pouring everything onto the table to figure out how to solve the critically important puzzles posed by modern life. How do we continue to fuel our energy-hungry society, in ways that are sustainable, preserve our energy independence, and prevent the by-products of combustion from dangerously contaminating our environment and altering our climate? How do we fund and staff and manage excellent schools that deliver on the promise of providing equality of opportunity to all Americans willing to work hard and be responsible citizens? In general, how do we maintain and improve our social and material infrastructure, so that we can pursue our lives, our liberty, and our happiness secure in the belief that we are doing so on firm foundations?

    Governing ourselves isn’t fundamentally an ideological challenge. It’s a practical one. Sure, there are genuine ideological differences that can’t just be wished away. And we can and must continue to work together to find common ground on those issues, to agree to disagree and then find a way to reach a middle ground whenever possible. But that middle ground should define the beginning, not the end, of our political efforts, for it is within the context of that common ground that we can roll up our sleeves, pour everything onto the table, and tackle the problems and challenges that confront us.

    (in response to Irina):

    There are basically two challenges that a representative democracy must meet: 1) to ensure that the agents of the people’s will are acting in the people’s interests (what is normally called “an agency problem”), and 2) to ensure that they do so most effectively (your “not wanting farmers to design health care policy” problem). Neither should be ignored. There is a huge corpus of economic and legal literature on these challenges. In short, I agree with you completely: Government by plebiscite is not desirable, and Colorado state government, for instance, leans way too far in that direction.But while the two challenges are somewhat in tension with one another, the problem is not intractible. What we need most is a better educated electorate, so that we can be closer to what should be the “starting line” for confronting these challenges: All being reasonable people of good will, applying the best analyses available to the most reliable data, in pursuit of the policies which most effectively improve the sustainability, robustness, and fairness of our social institutional framework.

  23. Gary Hart Says:

    Some profound thinking, and writing, going on here whether you agree with it or not. And I love Mr. Harvey’s analogy of the Apollo 13 approach to problem solving. This is what governing has got to these days. Let’s hope it works.

  24. Tom Gee Says:

    Senator Bayh must have read this blog, especially Mr. Harvey’s comment.

  25. avmed Says:

    Rates are going up, and that means bonds will go down. Don’t need a bubble for that.

  26. judith krieger Says:

    My goodness, this is all so high-minded, academic and oddly dispassionate. Call me uncivil for making the observation but it is also nearly useless in terms of problem solving. This country is on the precipice of disaster on so many fronts and the only use many conservatives have for the word ‘civil’ is as a modifier to the word war.
    We’re in a bare-knuckle political fight. Republicans have no intent of disavowing the conduct of extremists in their party. Their only intent is to win elections at any cost.
    The party that frets over civility will be the party that loses elections and the opportunity to stop the frightening direction this country is taking. Bill Clinton was correct: “When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right.”

  27. Gary Hart Says:

    In response to Ms. Krieger I would only say that there is nothing incompatible between civility and strength. I apologize for being “high-minded, academic, and oddly dispassionate.” But I don’t see bare-knuckles as solving our nation’s problems.

  28. Bob Sampron Says:

    To my surprise, I just found my own words here on Sen. Hart’s blog. Thank you for replying so long ago, Senator.

    It’s interesting to revisit the topic and my words after the attempt on the life of Rep. Giffords, especially the statement “We should be thankful the bullets are not flying yet.” They have now flown, killing six and wounding too many others.

    Politics is about power, or as the late political scientist (U of Chicago) Harold Lasswell defined it: who gets what, when and how, and how they keep it. It’s about being heard and receiving deference. After Oklahoma City, 9/11 (a political statement, as much as we don’t like the thought), other attempted bombings around the country, and the sadness in Tucson, I wonder if we are seeing a slow-motion revolution?

    Back in my undergrad Poli Sci program at Metro State, I did a lot of reading about the communitarian movement. It was kind of new at the time.

    Communitarianism is built on the idea that for every right somebody claims, others bear responsibility for defending that right. Defense of that right ends up imposed on them by the person claiming the right. It’s up to everybody else to do as that one person says. Why? What gives that person the right to make moral judgments for everybody else, to the point of laying down the lives of others?

    I’ve found myself at the point where I will not defend many of the rights claimed by my fellow citizens. The claims are so extreme now, I simply refuse. For example, I question the right to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few under the pretext of a right to own property. It sucks capital out of the labor markets and makes people poor. Who says we have that right? Who says I have to defend it? John Locke? St. Augustine (free will argument)? So what!

    I’m concerned that this manufactured right is costing us civility/public peace. Is it worth that? If so, why? Why should I defend something that doesn’t benefit me and, worse, puts civilization at risk?

    My heart goes out to Rep. Giffords, her family, her friends, and to all affected by this political act. May they be the last to feel a rebel’s bullet on American soil. May we find a way to restore civility by becoming responsible for creating a common peace. Because when that part of the commons goes, and civility/public peace is as much a part of the commons as a freeway, we will become savages again.

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