Ahsan: Uncivilized Civility

A fixation on elite-driven civility in politics hamstrings discourse.

by Sajid Ahsan | 5/10/18 2:15am

 The current political moment is mired in vulgarity, partly engendered by the election of a walking parody of a reality show host notorious for sexual indiscretions to the presidency following a campaign that started by calling Mexican immigrants rapists. It isn’t particularly difficult to see why calls for a return to dignity ring true in the minds of many Americans. This is especially true for a certain class of educated liberals who are largely shielded from the cruelest policies now being enacted by federal and state agencies throughout the country. For these people, the deepest defining characteristic of the Trump era is a sense of embarrassment, the profound humiliation of waking up every morning to some fresh bizarre horror and thinking, “we lost to this.”

Capitalizing on this raw indignation, a coterie of frowning, extremely serious media personalities have staked their claim over political discourse, mourning the death of the great American tradition of decency in politics. The new ideal to have is “civility,” the notion that petty ideological differences are transcended by a sense of abiding mutual civic respect. This has very little to do, of course, with anything this administration or its eager enablers in Congress and in state governments are actually doing. In fact, the ideological spectrum of these warriors for niceness spans from the usual Democratic Party operatives and talking heads to figures with politics functionally identical to those of the President, whose only real gripe is with the crassness with which the message is delivered, rather than with the content. This has included the rehabilitation in the liberal mind of individuals like David Frum and Max Boot, who rose to prominence during the George W. Bush years for their cheerleading of the disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq. Even Bush himself has seen his image whitewashed in the wake of Trump’s election. Disagree with his policies, the refrain goes, but he had the dignity befitting the office.

America’s grand civility, it seems, does not extend to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed as a result of the invasion.

What the lamentations about this loss of decency all ignore, whether willfully or not, is that for a great many, both at home and abroad, American politics have never been civil. Chalking up the ills of this historical moment to a lack of bipartisanship or a culture of disrespect as is common in the op-ed pages of notable publications betrays an approach to public affairs more concerned with politics as a social club than with the material consequences the actions our government have on human lives. Time and time again, it is made abundantly clear that civility in politics is reserved for individuals of great wealth and power, never actually extending to the people whose lives depend on their decisions. Politicians who accomplish the bare minimum of speaking in complete sentences without embarking on bizarre, offensive tangents demand respect and admiration, whatever the cost of their actions may be. It is markedly less common to see commentators opining on the lack of civility shown to, say, immigrant families torn apart by ICE or poor people suffering from the gutting of social welfare policies.

On a campus as wealthy and as privileged as Dartmouth, students’ engagement with politics often occurs on a level largely detached from the realities faced by most people, a trend reflected in a political culture dominated by graduates of similarly elite institutions. This often leads to an attitude that treats political views as aesthetic affectations. At its least malignant, this notion leads to frivolous media nonsense, like the interminable debate over whether standup comedians are too mean to presidents and their staff — a mind-numbingly inconsequential argument that seems to consume news media once every 10 years or so — or the entire cottage industry of op-eds about how people should be nicer to op-ed columnists they don’t like. At its most pernicious however, this tendency to adhere to a very specific sort of cultivated politeness has a chilling effect on meaningful discussion with regards to the actual substance of politics. While the cry of “political correctness” has become commonplace on the Right, referring largely to the fact that there are now marginally more consequences for open bigotry, it seems the discourse surrounding the term rarely considers the actual dynamics of power. In reality, the most entrenched form of political correctness in American politics, and the most insidious, is this: an emphasis on civility and polite social relations between the privileged few able to participate in the political conversation, rather than on accountability, hinders this nation’s ability to honestly confront the human cost of its policies.

During the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, every honest analysis of the proposed Republican replacement bill noted that the loss of healthcare by over 20 million Americans as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office would translate into tens of thousands of deaths. It is a rigorously researched fact that lack of health insurance results in drastically worse health outcomes and consequently, significantly higher mortality rates, particularly for the disabled. However, it was still considered somehow indecent or hysterical to make the clear assessment that this plan made a tradeoff of the lives of the most vulnerable for the enrichment of a select few, as if this was leveling accusations of murder at its architects rather than an honest appraisal of its effects.

There is still the notion that it is somehow gauche to point out the researched deleterious effects of policy, whether they be the documented fact that austerity policies in England have been linked to needless deaths for the poor or that climate change denial on the part of elected officials is having a devastating effect on the planet. It is almost as if such things are impolite topics of dinner conversation, as if any attempt to meaningfully reckon with the impact of the decisions made in the halls of power is an attack on the honor of one’s fellow guests. Politics, of course, is not a dinner party; for the people on the margins, politics is life and death. Any standard of politeness that asks people to ignore suffering for the sake of courtesy is not civility at all, but brutality adorned in a laced bow. If one must be “uncivil” to be civilized, so be it. Any commitment to politics truly based on respect for human dignity demands it.