A couple of weeks ago, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (R) gave a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He provided a great illustration of why calls for civility are usually futile.
First, note his comments about people who are not on their side (evidently referring to Democrats, liberals and progressives):
“[There are people] who sincerely believe that history has devised a leftward ratchet, moving in fits and starts but always in the direction of a more powerful state. … The federal spending commitments now in place will bring about the leviathan state they have always sought. … Our fiscal ruin and resulting loss of world leadership will, in their eyes, be not a tragic event but a desirable one, delivering the multilateral world of which they’ve dreamed so long.”
Then, after saying that, Daniels makes a plea for civil debate:
“I urge a similar thoughtfulness about the rhetoric we deploy in the great debate ahead. I suspect everyone here regrets and laments the sad, crude coarsening of our popular culture. It has a counterpart in the venomous, petty, often ad hominem political discourse of the day.”
And then, after calling for a higher standard of discourse and lamenting the coarsening of our politics, Daniels goes on to say:
“And besides, our opponents are better at nastiness than we will ever be. It comes naturally. Power to them is everything, so there’s nothing they won’t say to get it.”
So, on the one hand, Daniels says we should avoid “venomous, petty” rhetoric and strive for civil debate. But then, in the same speech, he says that his political opponents are happy that we face fiscal ruin and a loss of international status, and that they only care about power and will say anything to get it.
This, unfortunately, is fairly typical. Politicians routinely say they’re opposed to name-calling and invective, and then go on to verbally abuse their opponents with name-calling and invective. This hypocrisy isn’t always so neatly encapsulated in one speech, like the one Daniels delivered to CPAC, but lots of politicians are guilty of it (for instance, President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush).
As I’ve said before, the only way we’re going to improve our political discourse is if prominent people — such as presidents, governors, senators, media pundits, etc. — set a good example. And setting a good example means more than just saying, “We should be civil”. It means refraining from name-calling and demonizing, and pointing out and condemning anyone who resorts to it, even if they’re in your own party.
By saying, “Let’s be civil”, and then calling Democrats and liberals names, Daniels is setting a bad example and confusing those who look up to him. His behavior leads people to think that calling progressives power-hungry jerks who celebrate our ruin is consistent with upholding civil debate. (In the same way that Obama sets a confusing standard, admonishing us to “disagree without being disagreeable” and then saying that Republicans are Social Darwinists with no sense of community or neighborliness.)
Our political leaders don’t recognize their own name-calling. They either can’t or won’t. So why should anyone believe them when they call for civility? Why should any Democrat believe Daniels’ call for civil debate, seeing that he continues to demonize Democrats? (Why should any Republican believe Obama’s call for civil debate, seeing that he continues to demonize Republicans?) Why should we believe anyone who claims that they want civil debate if they don’t set a good example with their own conduct?
Hopefully, some day soon we’ll get some leaders who don’t call for civility. Hopefully, some day we’ll instead get leaders who behave with civility. Leaders who don’t resort to name-calling or caricature.
Leaders who don’t use the call for civility as another opportunity to demonize their opponents, to baselessly claim that the other side is more responsible for name-calling.