No Civility, No Democracy
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.