Since the tragedy in Arizona, where nineteen people were shot (including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords) and six murdered, talk of “civility” has been plentiful. The right side of the political spectrum was called to the mat for using such horrible words as “target” and “socialism” and having the temerity to employ Hitler/Nazism comparisons in protest signage (that, the truth be told, they weren’t even carrying). Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement were specifically denigrated for employing uncivil “eliminationist” rhetoric that was directly responsible for Mr. Jared Lee Loughner pulling the trigger in that awful event on January 8, 2011.
The gross mendacity (and unintentional preterition) of these charges against the right generally, and the Tea Partiers specifically, is bad enough. That they are leveled with abject hypocrisy is even worse. But politics is not a sport well-played in a tit-for-tat fashion. Everyone is guilty of hyperbole and hypocrisy at some point, regardless of political afflialiation.
What’s truly galling is the way that “civility” is suddenly determined by the language an opponent employs. Civility has nothing to do with words, but instead, everything to do with action. On that score, Democrats are behaving in as uncivil a manner as is possible.
A civilized nation conducts itself according to a defined, written, universally applicable and executable set of laws. Adherence to such laws are the immutable backbone of any society capable of survival. Wanton disregard of such laws inexorably leads to chaos and tyranny. Ergo, “civility” does not depend on people speaking nicely about one another, but upon everyone playing by the same rules.
The current flouting of the legal process in Wisconsin and now Indiana, (and what previously occurred in Texas), is the true definition of uncivil. Ignoring and actively undermining the electoral process is the epitome of “uncivil” action. Whatever harsh words may or may not have been spoken before, civility is still entirely dependent upon the process for determining the course of action in pursuit of public goals. Running away in avoidance of legislative duties smacks of cowardice and worse. It uproots the civil process.
A common observation of the democracy holds that voting is simply a proxy for violence. Fleshed out a bit, the process of electoral action is made in lieu of battle. We could decide the course of society based on bloody battle alone, and let might make right. Instead, civil societies have chosen to allow the consent of the governed to rule, the best of which societies have done so through a responsive and accountable republic. When the governors cease to heed to will of the governed, however, civil society becomes endangered and trouble is inevitable.
No less than Thomas Jefferson warned of the dangers in pursuing “uncivil” means of governance in the “shot across the bow” leading to the American Revolution, entitled “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (emphasis added):
And this his majesty will think we have reason to expect when he reflects that he is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendance …
To remind him that our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right, which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness. That their Saxon ancestors had under this universal law, in like manner, left their native wilds and woods in the North of Europe, had possessed themselves of the island of Britain then less charged with inhabitants, and had established there that system of laws which has so long been the glory and protection of that country … Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual. For themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold …
But that not long were they permitted, however far they thought themselves removed from the hand of oppression, to hold undisturbed the rights thus acquired at the hazard of their lives and loss of their fortunes. A family of princes was then on the British throne, whose treasonable crimes against their people brought on them afterwards the exertion of those sacred and sovereign rights of punishment, reserved in the hands of the people for cases of extreme necessity, and judged by the constitution unsafe to be delegated to any other judicature. While every day brought forth some new and unjustifiable exertion of power over their subjects on that side the water, it was not to be expected that those here, much less able at that time to oppose the designs of despotism, should be exempted from injury. Accordingly that country which had been acquired by the lives, the labors and the fortunes of individual adventurers, was by these princes at several times parted out and distributed among the favorites and followers of their fortunes; and by an assumed right of the crown alone were erected into distinct and independent governments
Jefferson later simplified his empirical understanding of how societies work with the infamous quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Another way of comprehending the principle is that a nation of laws only survives as long as the laws are adhered to. Every sovereign, whether composed of one or many, can only retain the authority entrusted to it by the people for as long as it respects that trust. Once it strays, enough to undermine the confidence of the governed, those “sacred and sovereign rights of punishment” will come into play. While such an extreme consequence may be remote at this time, there is no good that can come from enacting the foundations for its execution.
When the basis of a democratic republic — i.e. the electoral process — is entirely ignored and, worse, evaded as a politically inconvenient nuisance to the preferred outcomes of the very people entrusted with the public duty to uphold the republic, is there any doubt that it will fall?
Civility in our political language is certainly useful and desirable, if not actually attainable. In contrast, civility – i.e. respect for the process and outcomes thereof – is the sine qua non of our democratic institutions. While we may prefer the former, we really must insist on the latter.