Becoming Civil Again

While a record number of citizens participated in the 2020 election, and voting is a key component of any form of representative government, it’s important to understand that the mere act of voting does not satisfy our responsibilities as citizens empowered to protect our republic. When it comes to keeping the system healthy, placing a sign in your yard, a bumper sticker on your car, or using social media to post support for one candidate or attacks on another doesn’t suffice. Many systems we see as failed and unfree have elections. Bringing elections to post-war Iraq didn’t end the violence, division and chaos. Elections are a necessary, but hardly sufficient variable in developing or maintaining a successful system of representative government.

At an individual level, participating in an election also doesn’t satisfy our responsibilities as citizens because the act of voting itself is largely an expressive signal of support for one “team” or another. We are acting as Democrats or Republicans and not necessarily as Americans. As Anthony Downs argued long ago, your individual vote plays essentially no tangible role in the outcome of an election. People decide to vote because the satisfaction they receive from participating outweighs the costs of voting—the time spent researching candidates and actually going to vote. An inexpensive symbolic act like voting is particularly insignificant in a system such as ours in which voting in the vast majority of states will not tip the balance of the Electoral College. What’s more, voting by mail has lowered the actual “costs” that a voter pays to participate. The problem with viewing democracy and the health of the republic merely through the lens of an election is that we are blind to the problems that run much deeper.

Voting is an individual decision made in the privacy of a voting booth. By contrast, citizenship is the action of an individual engaging with their fellow citizens in the maintenance of a healthy social order, solving political problems, discussing major events, and building towards consensus on both the values that support the social order and the policies that we will pursue when governments are formed. We will always disagree—Publius understood that factions are inevitable. What doesn’t have to be inevitable are factions destroying self-government. We must meet together and be able to talk even if we hold different positions. We do that in groups and as communities, not alone with a ballot.

Tocqueville’s keen observations about the United States, limited as they were by the regional bias of his travels, show us the extent to which democracy in the early stages of our history was not merely the simple act of voting and holding elections. Studying America with an eye to understanding the early 19th century, Tocqueville observed the actual practice of democracy in early America through town meetings, political discourse, and community based governance. He was particularly struck by what we would today call “civil society” in the U.S. He was impressed by the role that “associations” played in maintaining a sense of community and solving social problems.

Tocqueville was one of the first observers of America who saw that civic associations played a number of important roles in the early republic. Civic associations played a functional role by handling things the government shouldn’t. So charitable organizations rather than the government took the lead in providing assistance to the poor in 19th century America. Today churches and other groups still provide a large percentage of aid and assistance to those in need. And in their activities, these associations taught Americans behaviors necessary for the new republic’s survival. By bringing people together in groups to solve social problems, civic associations both moderated desires and conveyed a broader sense of self interest rightly understood while also modeling a way of life to maintain a broader sense of responsibility to the community not merely one’s self. Citizens cannot simply pursue their own interests in a self-governing system. That establishment and reinforcement of “self-interest rightly understood” helps develop citizenship—not merely solves collective actions problems. People work together to solve common problems, but they also learn how to be citizens through such organizations.

In her recent book Civic Gifts, the sociologist Elisabeth Clemens shows just how right Tocqueville’s analysis was. She argues that while conventional American history has focused on the role that the state has played in handling crises as diverse as the Revolutionary War, the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression, those actions happened against a backdrop of significant voluntary and charitable activity. She notes that while FDR is famous for the expansion of federal power through his New Deal, he was instrumental in working with Carl Byoir to forming what eventually became known as the March of Dimes—a charity to fight polio. Civil society has also allowed the American public to maintain relatively higher levels of community and philanthropy while simultaneously supporting their government and maintaining individual liberty.

Today we are surrounded by an America with two distinct challenges to the bulwarks that Tocqueville and Clemens identify as critical to the survival of the republic. The first major challenge is that public discourse is broken. A large and significant group of voters have withdrawn or been effectively excluded from the public exchange that has been crucial to the functioning of representative governance since the Athenian democracy and the town meetings that Tocqueville observed. Our public discourse does not include a broad enough range of public opinion to reflect broadly held values. What should be a key component of any functioning representative form of government is polluted by intolerance and calls to reject any arguments for one side. We now see claims from both sides that the other is engaging in seditious activity—either by illegally rioting at the Capitol or stealing an election. Calling the other side traitors to the republic makes public discourse exceedingly difficult. It becomes all too simple to reject your opponents’ positions as treason. One of the foundational freedoms necessary to maintain liberty is that of opinion. As the American Founders, J.S. Mill, and countless others have argued, without an arena that accepts a wide range of publicly accepted views we cannot call ourselves free. And right now one part of the electorate believes they are not free to express themselves.

Polling errors in the 2020 general election reflect this starkly. Supporters of President Trump were either lying to pollsters or simply not part of the samples of most major polls. It’s been obvious for quite some time that many people quietly support the president and simply do not feel comfortable discussing that support publicly or believe that the system is biased against their views. Belittling their choices and berating them as racists will not solve the fundamental problem here. Whether or not one supports the President, bets on elections, or simply cares about the health and openness of public exchange and the liberal model of free expression, we cannot expect a representative form of government to survive if so many people do not believe their right to free expression will be respected. Conversely, if so many others cavalierly paint the views of their opponents as beyond what is respectable we cannot have any public discourse.

We learn to scream on-line; we learn toleration and patience when we discuss face to face and work with individuals who have a diverse set of backgrounds and views. We must return to our clubs and churches. We need to relearn how to be social and civilized again.

This brings us to the second real danger we face today—alienation from our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. This obviously damages our personal relationships, but it adversely affects our ability to participate in exactly the types of civil associations so necessary and fundamental to the survival of our political and social institutions. Social media began to expose the growing distance and accepted uncivil hostility between individuals of different beliefs. We live in comfortable echo chambers where our priors are merely confirmed and never challenged. There is no exchange and updating. Instead of moderating public views through debate, a fundamental part of any democratic system, we are marginalizing and stigmatizing our enemies. That’s no way to heal divisions.

But our Covid policies have thrown gasoline on the fire. Isolation has bred misanthropy and undermined a sense of community. Quarantines and lockdowns have encouraged vitriol in place of discussion and listening. Separated by physical space we can describe our opponents as faceless, nameless individuals in groups, not as individuals. Even when we do encounter people outside of our homes and bubbles we see them almost dehumanized wearing masks and warily maintaining distance. While this is wise for public health, it’s deadly for rebuilding community. Nazis, the Soviets, and other assorted totalitarians used to dehumanize their enemies and ascribe characteristics to classes not individuals with opposing views. We are veering into extremely dangerous territory.

And this isolation is even more damaging to civil society. Consider the recent attacks on religious organizations in the US both through limits on their practices and condemning the behaviors of their members. Church services are often characterized as super spreader events and highly dangerous. But setting aside the comfort individuals draw from practicing their faith, it’s important to remember how critical churches are in helping the poor through charitable acts. Churches often serve as the bulwark of civil society, kinship, and community activities throughout the nation. By singling out the functioning of organized religion, we may prevent the spread of the virus, but at what cost to the society and individuals who worship in them?

Unless we bridge our physical divide and return to the practice of real politics, face to face, in conversation and accommodation, we risk allowing politicians to become demagogues and many politicians, even the ones you support, are inches away from becoming one. As civil society withers, the temptation for politicians to step into that void and take on more responsibility and power becomes more likely. If we demonize those with different viewpoints we allow for politicians to use that division to galvanize power. Liberty and responsibility will suffer until we can physically see our fellow citizens as people, hear their viewpoints and relearn the practice of being Americans.

Finally we must try to reconstruct the organizations that were core components to the civil society that have always made America the country and polity so special. While I have always thought Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone was overstated, his main point about the decline of in-person association now seems more relevant when we see the wasteland that is political discourse on social media. We learn to scream on-line; we learn toleration and patience when we discuss face to face and work with individuals who have a diverse set of backgrounds and views. We must return to our clubs and churches. We need to relearn how to be social and civilized again.

Now that this election is over, we must leave our isolation and rebuild the social and political fabric that has been destroyed. We cannot allow demagogues to isolate and separate us. We must respect all citizens and accept our fellow Americans and their views. We don’t have to agree, but we must stop demonizing and degrading, either through actions or words. Voting is part of our job, but building ties, neighborhoods, communities, organizations, businesses and society is a much more important task with which we are charged. It’s fundamental to any representative government. We quickly need to get our world reopened as a way to repair the fractures, disarm the demagogues, and join back together again.

Reader Discussion

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on January 21, 2021 at 09:16:56 am

There is a basic misapperception at work here. The sentiment expressed would have been appropriate twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Not currently. Worse, it echoes and identifies too closely with Biden's and the entire media-tech-political class's hollow and profoundly misleading call for "unity" yesterday. And likewise, given the suspected allusion, the now former president was no demagogue.

He has his equals, but there is no better surveyor and analyst of America's contemporary political/ideological scene than Ken Masugi. Yesterday, in a well tailored piece over at American Greatness titled Hoping for Freedom: Trump's Farewell Address, Masugi notes:

"For all his reputation as erratic, distracted, and impulsive, President Trump’s political focus has been amazingly consistent and the most supportive of the freedoms of the American people of any president since Abraham Lincoln."


"But the elites who have governed preferred the sovereignty of their administrative state and the sophisticated authority or arrogance it embodies. ...

"While demagogues on these themes abound, no one can rightly be called a demagogue who in fact rescues the people from these policies and thereby seeks the restoration of freedom and self-government."

You cannot be high minded unless you are well grounded - well grounded in the present, not the past.

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Michael Bond
on January 21, 2021 at 09:26:10 am

Given the author's previous effort, "The Embarrassing Eleven," this call to civility rings hollow.

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Ario B. Junker
on January 21, 2021 at 11:44:00 am

Oh my, another Lynching!

The day after Inauguration Day 2021, Lynch's essay offers up a trite reprise of that Sixties hit song by pop singer, Jackie Deshannon, "What the World Needs Now Is Love." In lyrics that were not cliche then (and which were much better sung by Deshannon in 1965 than written by Lynch in 2021,) Deshannon's doleful song captures the heart of Lynch's imploring essay:
"What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It's the only thing that there's just too little of."
"What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some but for everyone."

Lynch's is the "let's all just be nice" attitude of America's politically gullible class. They constitute the morally high-minded, emotionally-vacuous, intellectually-naive, "We can swing either way so long as it's nice" political class of swing thinkers, swing moralizers, and swing voters. They are the hand-wringing "undecided" voters at the polls before election day. They are the George H.W. and George W. Bush's, John McCain's, Mitt Romney's, Paul Ryan's, Ben Sasse's and Mitch McConnell's of our political elites, the L&L's of our web blogs, and the Chamber of Commerce of our business leaders. Since the days of "Uncle Joe" (the original Uncle Joe, not the epigone now awaiting his handlers' orders at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) the Left, which is always-politically-savvy and ruthless, has considered this feckless, "We can go either way" political class as "useless idiots" and exploited it with Machiavellian success. Today, the ''useful idiots" political class is to the politics of national survival what the "fatuously fair and balanced," acquiescent mentality of the Weekly Standard, Fox, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal are to conservative media. In the face of the attack dogs of the Democrats and the mainstream left media, they are worse than useless, they facilitate the assault against conservativism and national greatness. The ''useful idiots" smile even when they are being slaughtered and wring their hands while conservatism is crushed and the nation ruined.

Deshannon's 1965 lyrics of hope require substantial rewriting so as to fit Lynch's aspiration and the 2021 world of Joe Biden reality:
"What the world needs now
Now that the Dem's run it,
is unity sweet unity."
"No, not just for some,
but for everyone who opposed us."

Why can't we all just get along and enjoy the revolution?
That guy, Robespierre, is not such a bad fellow once you get to know him, once you get your head straight.
And get your head straight you must, or we'll take it off.

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on January 21, 2021 at 14:06:39 pm

The comments of Michael Bond and Paladin are incorporated into this opinion as though fully set forth herein.

Mr. Lynch's essay is an example of that peculiar form of American letters, pulp philosophy. The genre is characterized by presumptions of seriousness that are announced by vacant declarations such as "The time has come...!" "We need to re-learn..." "We must rebuild..." followed by lectures as to what long-dead authors teach us that no one ever realized. It is a formulaic prose that substitutes cliche for thought and is based on the curious assumption that the solution to our problem is obvious, but needs to be explained with great patience and earnestness because the obviousness is not obvious.

I will not begrudge Mr. Lynch his earnestness or even his obviousness, but I will suggest that his characterization of the issues suffers from a want of depth, and starts somewhere in the middle rather than at the beginning. Mr. Lynch does not indicate how we have arrived at this crisis, other than to hint that we have been seduced by demagogues, forgotten things we learned in kindergarten, and reverted back to the primitive habits of tribalism. Paladin's observation is useful here. One notes that our jurisprudence is often determined by mediocrities such as Anthony Kennedy or John Roberts, our legislation is now dependent on the whims of Joe Manchin and Mitt Romney. Our Executive is determined by the fickle middle of our political spectrum who are swayed by any number of influences, many of which are wholly unrelated to good government. As Paladin alludes, we live in a swingocracy, and consequently give outsized influence to flakes, the attention-challenged, gullible, and non-serious. We effectively defer to the indecisive and have our affairs decided by those who are best able to exploit that circumstance.

This is not a criticism of our federal republic. As Madison averred in the Federalist the Convention was not designing a government only for ideal circumstances, but also one that would have to function with B-teamers, half-wits and sociopaths in positions of great power and authority. What is missing from Mr. Lynch's essay is recognition that our current circumstances arose in response to the environment; political, economic, social, cultural etc. It is the result of affluence and relative security enabling flirtation with nihilism, moral relevance, indifference to human dignity and individual liberty, ignorance of the history of identity politics, and so on. The issue is not so much that we have forgotten how to be civil, as much as that we have forgotten why we should be. One may consider that the error that allowed the anti-human wolf into the moral flock is the confusion of compromise for civility. What our affluence and security and pseudo-moralizing and Potemkin empathy has produced for us is the notion that our principles should be negotiable, that we can have what we want at the moment and the world will give us a mulligan. Mr. Lynch's essay begins with the premise that the problem is found in the processes of politics when in fact it originates in morbid philosophies and the idea that human life is just an ordinary thing.

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on January 21, 2021 at 21:23:37 pm

"...that the solution to our problem is obvious, but needs to be explained with great patience and earnestness because the obviousness is not obvious." And yet there are times and places where a clear and forceful restatement of something that "everyone knows" or "understands intrinsically" has great merit. It helps to clear away the fog. For example, from your comment above: "One notes that our jurisprudence is often determined by mediocrities such as Anthony Kennedy or John Roberts, our legislation is now dependent on the whims of Joe Manchin and Mitt Romney." Our personal inclinations are to "give the benefit of the doubt" to such august personages when such doubt does not or no longer deserves such benefit. I don't recall any other specific example of similar language right now, but I do know I have praised Paladin for the forthrightness and candor of some of his past comments that also fit this bill.

And you are a solid essayist yourself, viz: "One may consider that the error that allowed the anti-human wolf into the moral flock is the confusion of compromise for civility. What our affluence and security and pseudo-moralizing and Potemkin empathy has produced for us is the notion that our principles should be negotiable..." Thus when political correctness appeared on the scene (in the 1990's?) we accepted language restrictions as a measure of politeness, but not as an agreement with what has now grown into deranged policy positions and beliefs.

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on January 21, 2021 at 18:30:18 pm

Bond, Paladin and Z9:

That is what in hockey is referred to as a Hat Trick. Three solid and incontestable goals.
I do not like hockey but I do very much appreciate the above Hat Trick.

In a recent post, "Markets and the Common Good", Christopher Chantrill, of American Thinker fame posted this comment:

"I give you Mircea Eliade:
"The primitive... cannot conceive of an unprovoked suffering; it arises from a personal fault... or from his neighbor's malevolence... but there is always a fault at the bottom of it[.]"
That's the problem with free markets and law. When something goes wrong, people think someone is to blame and they want government to fix it. With force."

Chantrill here appears to be adamantly and morally opposed to casting "blame' It is *primitive, he avers. In fact, it is! Blame is simply one facet of the genetically endowed, if not necessitated, capacity of homo sapiens to infer "cause and effect." We are hardwired for it and it is the basis of our uniquely human epistemology.
My response is as follows:
"Don;t cast blame - except when blame is warranted."

Lynch, not unlike so many other, pundits / academics are loathe to cast "blame", even when culprits are both plentiful and obvious, preferring instead to offer tripe and pablum coated with a saccharin and mellifluent hymnal to civility and tolerance.
Yet, where he to explore, as Z9 suggests how we "got here", he may find that there is "blame" to go around, that it may rightly be targeted at certain quarters and actors and that the very intolerant "tolerance" to which he alludes may be both a cause and a symptom of the six decades long project to minimize or destroy American traditions and those who support such traditions, that while attributing "blame" may not be a sufficient condition to remove the obstacles to good citizenship, it IS a necessary condition.
Without history, without an understanding of HOW we got here, WHO put us here, we are unable to first understand the depth of the threat confronting us nor are we able to counter that threat.
Human epistemology compels causal thinking. It will not, nor should it ever be "overcome." Rather, it should be rational, focused and applied to its proper target.
It may be argued that we may have, or conceivably can overshoot our target.
A valid question.
But, perhaps, an equally valid, if not more valid question should be:
Have those who warrant blame overshot their targets?
Will they recognize that?
Do they even want to recognize that.
Recall that one of President Emeritus Bidens first acts was to "disappear" the 1776 commission.
Observe that the House Oversight Chair has just today demanded that the FBI investigate Parler for possible Russian ownership?


Who is more likely to wrongly attribute blame?
Who is more likely to overshoot?

So no more hymnals to "civility." Unwarranted and misplaced "civility" is what got us here.

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on January 21, 2021 at 19:43:13 pm

Apropos Gabe's comment about "disappearing" the report of the 1776 Commission, I note that the Biden Bunch, which is lots scarier than the Brady Bunch, also "disappeared" from the State Department web site by start of business today the "Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights" (the so-called Glendon Report,) which was finalized in August 2020 and hotly opposed by Leftist special interest advocates of sexual perversity as a political and "human right." Obviously, the final report failed to acquiesce to their demand, so it was promptly disappeared.

You can still find the draft report online, but not at the State Department's web site. The full-length final report can be found only in a PDF version, although there are numerous Leftist media articles attacking the August final report.

This is all reminiscent of "The Court of the Red Czar."
I recommend that you print out a copy of both reports, that of the 1776 Commission and that of the Unalienable Rights Commission, as it is probable that internet platform providers will delete them before very long.

May you live in interesting times."

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on January 21, 2021 at 21:46:08 pm

Calls for "unity" become risible when the first EO's out of the Oval Office cancel further building on the border wall, allow Islamic terrorists greater access to America, and reduce our ability to dominate the fossil fuel - natural gas market via fracking, the pipeline, and related technology. These are not expounded as approaches having their own merit, but simply as "not Trump" so "you deplorables can go pound sand!" Another version of Obama's "we won".

On the news tonight NBC (I know!) had someone assert that unity would be apparent when the right came back to the middle by 25 to 50%. I don't expect us to give any validity to the above moves against national security, nor give any quarter to threats to the 1st or 2nd amendments. But maybe we can offer to be "nice" in regard to what will be the overly generous pandemic bailout legislation, given how poorly we resisted the previous bills and their misallocations of benefits to too many who did not need such support (even as loans). From 2020, we (or at least our Republican legislators) do not have much credibility to die on this particular fiscal hill. But then we need to be firm in demanding a reciprocal adjustment in policy position from the left. Right now I do not see it happening.

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on January 22, 2021 at 10:40:02 am

It is impossible to call for being civil, when abortion and sexual immorality are, in essence, uncivilized acts. To compromise when it comes to the Sanctity of human life, will result in the continuation of these uncivilized acts, which no one who values the virtue of being civil, would desire to tolerate to begin with. It s impossible to be civil, when you deny the Sanctity of all human life from the moment conception, when we are created and brought into being, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as a beloved son or daughter.

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on January 21, 2021 at 10:35:34 am

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