The Catholic University of America
Aug 17 2010

No Civility, No Democracy

Posted by Stephen Schneck at 4:49 PM
- Categories: Government & Civil Society

Democracy requires from its citizens special virtues, without which it fails. Foremost, democracy needs citizens virtuous enough to transcend self-interest in pursuit of what is good for the republic as a whole. For traditional Catholic thought, that good of the whole is called “the common good.” In this sense, democracy depends upon citizens in possession of civic virtue that directs them to the common good.

But, the list of needed virtues for democracy does not stop there. For example, coupled with a devotion to the common good, democracy’s citizens require a complex of virtues that support mature independence and sovereignty among the citizenry. Such virtues enable citizens properly to participate in the public square as the “citizen rulers” that the word democracy defines them to be. They must have sufficient strength of character and independence of mind and will to govern and not to be governed—not to be governed by the mob, not to be governed by the state, not to be governed by the fads and fashions of the politics of the moment, and not to be governed by their own parochial interests.

Citizens’ strength of character and freedom of mind, moreover, require virtues that undergird the political conditions in which they thrive. Sometimes called “liberal virtues” (in the sense that Locke and Jefferson are liberal) these include, among others, civility. Often pooh-poohed as a thin or procedural virtue, in fact, civility is potent and vital to democracy. It was civility and similar liberal virtues that resolved the chaos and violence of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe—thereby giving rise to modern democratic governments. Indeed, civility is enshrined in the understandings of rights that are the foundations of modern democracies.  What are freedoms of thought, religion, press, and assembly if not institutions reflecting presumed civility?

Foes of civility decry its conservative bias. Famously, the ‘60s Leftist radical, Herbert Marcuse, in a volume provocatively entitled Critique of Pure Tolerance, attacked civility for its conservative protection of the status quo. He reasoned that if political processes and the public square are corrupt and compromised—as he imagined America in the ‘60s to be—then practicing civility only hobbled the dialectical confrontation needed for systemic reform or revolution. Similar arguments against civility come from today’s radicals—many of whom now line up on the Right. We’re told that those who run “the system” are not merely advancing poor policies but are immoral, so much so that discourse must give way to vilification. Faced with apocalyptic evil, the contention is that engaging in civil discourse would be morally compromising—vaguely complicit with the evil itself. Only righteous outrage and shrill fury are appropriate.

Marcuse and civility’s contemporary critics have a point. When faced with deep-seated and structural evil in the political order, practicing civility becomes vice not virtue. However true this might be theoretically, though, it is no easy task (even with decades of hindsight) to ascertain when civility shades into civil vice. Moreover, even when addressing the most thoroughgoing and inherent of societal evils, civility may well be prudent for best progress toward reform. What criterion, then, might offer some measure for determining when civility should end?

One measure might be democracy. As noted, democracy works only if people have the specific civic virtues to be able to work for the common good. Civility is near the heart of such virtues. Think for a moment about how democracy is supposed to work. We expect in a democracy that citizens’ mutual deliberation and reflection properly inform their public policy decisions. Deliberation of this sort depends on citizens being able to speak and to listen to one another with openness. It begs civility. Without civility the requisite discourse of viable democracy collapses.

Here’s the measure then. Since democracy requires it, we abandon civility only when we would abandon democracy itself.



Matt wrote on 08/17/10 8:56 PM

Since we have a representative democracy, I wonder if there is a substantive difference in effect between incivility pursued by elected officials versus the public at large. Some scholars (Morris Fiorina most prominently) have argued that our representatives are far more polarized (and, presumably, less civil in their discourse) than the general public. I wonder whether our democratic system is more or less threatened under these circumstances...
Mary Paterson

Mary Paterson wrote on 08/18/10 10:18 AM

This is an intriguing topic since incivility is the often the symptom of deeper feelings of disillusionment. This can lead to civil unrest, protest, and potentially revolution. Isaac Asimov said that violence is the last resort of the incompetent. Perhaps incivility is the first resort of the uninformed. I would like to strongly second the thought that not only does democracy depend on deliberation, but it vitally depends on informed deliberation. This implies a will in the society to understand the major issues of the day in some detail before reaching a conclusion. As an educator I hope that we can convince our students to become informed citizens of our democracy rather than incivil dolts loudly advocating positions that they do not quite understand.
Steve McKenna

Steve McKenna wrote on 08/18/10 4:37 PM

The political system is media-driven. The media system is commercially driven. Incivility rivets attention, serving the short term aims of politicians, and the profit motives of media corporations. This is an observation, not a defense of incivility. Marcuse would roll in his grave to look at the media-political complex today.

In a related vein, just what do we mean by civility? There is the self-interest transcending civility (SIT-civ) built on mutual sympathy that has, in the West anyway, Christian roots (cf. Deirdre McCloskey's overly optimistic _Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce_). But there is a narrow pragmatic civility--PI-civ call it, something akin to Aristotle's instrumental friendship--that is self-interest driven, and suffices for many kinds of day-to-day social transactions, particularly commercial ones. Writ large onto a political system, that's a formula for disaster, I think. So PI-civ may not deserve the name.

We've always had a good deal of incivility in our politics. But we've never had a political system so dominated by capitalistic interests, and I fear that will only get more extreme after the Court's narrow ruling in January on campaign funding.
Stephen Schneck

Stephen Schneck wrote on 08/20/10 3:10 PM

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Professor Green poses a really good question. American government is not direct democracy, but rather is a representative government. Elected officials make the laws and policies on the citizens’ behalf. So, is the problem with civility really about the citizens or is it about these elected officials who (as Morris Fiorina and others note) are less civil than citizens, generally, for reasons of partisan advantage and the pressures of re-election? I’d say Fiorina is right—and so tweaking things so that elected officials are de-pressured regarding elections and intragovernmental partisanship probably would encourage more civility in our political discourse.

But, Professor McKenna raises a very important caveat. Cable “news,” talk radio, the blogosphere and the like have nothing to gain and much to lose if civility triumphs in our politics. And, although McKenna does not mention it, the milieu of America’s non-elected political activists—those in think tanks, policy shops, advocacy groups, and so forth—is also one where incivility is often rewarded. It’s not just Fiorina’s elected officials who are motivated to be uncivil.

Professor Paterson, moreover, raises the stakes even higher. The lack of civility in America’s political discourse is certainly abetted by worrisome gaps in political knowledge. We’ve all seen the Pew Forum’s recent data that a fifth of Americans overall and one-third of self-described conservative Republicans believe the president is a Muslim. Even more oddly, these numbers are growing. Arguably, there’s a link between civics education and civility. Professor Jim Youniss, a well-known researcher and Fellow at this institute, has researched the growing need for better civics education and civic involvement for our times.

So, we have many of the pieces of the puzzle here. Setting aside the media and activist dimension as the most difficult to address, I wonder if efforts might not be overdue for addressing the observations of Paterson and Green. Re-emphasizing civics education and civic involvement could only help, especially for the long-term. And, changes might well be considered for the operation of elective offices, if not to reward civility then at least to minimize the payoffs for incivility. Regarding this latter idea, it’s comforting to know that the well-known incivility among elected officials in ante-bellum America was effectively addressed by the progressive reforms to politics and government in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Arguably, we need such reformers again.
Mary Paterson

Mary Paterson wrote on 08/23/10 11:39 AM

Professor Schneck has provided an interesting summary of our discussions and I strongly second his thought that a reformation of sorts is overdue. The new emphasis on evidence in my own profession of nursing and health care is a hopeful sign. Perhaps we not only need renewed education in civics, but also a renewed emphasis on the importance of education in a democracy. Professor McKenna's point about the role of the media is well-taken, but excellence in journalism is perhaps part of the solution, not part of the problem. As we start a new school year it is good to reflect on all of this.

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