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The “Civil Discourse” Two-Step


In a story that would put even Neil Tyson’s recent setbacks to shame, Time magazine reported in 1950 that George Smathers, challenger for the Florida Democratic nomination for US Senate, had said of his opponent in the midst of a bitter campaign:

Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, practiced celibacy. 

Smathers had, in fact, said nothing of the kind. The lines were likely invented by newspaper reporters covering the race–and a little noted, nor long remembered source in the same piece suggested as much. But no matter: the lines stuck, revealing, in the end, more about the mores of its Progressive peddlers and purchasers than those of the supposed rubes it caricatured: the stupid, to-be-silenced majority. A prejudiced critique of prejudice, a slanderous denunciation of slander, eagerly soaked up by cosmopolitans for whom the quote confirmed their every bias about their opponents–a textbook case of the pot calling the kettle black.

The message of the Time story, at least within the Progressive echo chamber, was two-fold. First, it suggested that enlightenment was measured by one’s liberation from moral absolutes. Those everyday Americans who were incapable of proper re-education would need to learn their place. Second, it helped to explain to the Progressive flock, in a way that neo-Marxists have never quite been able to duplicate with their dwindling herd, why the end of History was a work in progress: your neighbors are simply still too dumb to get it.

The sort of implicit intellectual condescension that made the Smathers story stick has evolved in our day to a full-scale “wag-the-dog”-style politics in which the American people, considered by their betters as country bumpkins, are treated (especially during the kitchen sink stage of general election campaigns) to repeated instances of the “Civil Discourse” Two-Step.

The dance goes something like this. Step one: bemoan any criticism from your opponent, however accurate or fair-minded, as mean-spirited and intolerant. Step two: with righteous indignation, throw anything you can, however low or inflammatory, at your opposition.

Few have mastered this dance in recent memory as well as DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. A year ago, the congresswoman, more in sorrow than in anger, published these words about the lamentable state of contemporary politics in her book, For the Next Generation:

Differences of opinion are natural and healthy aspects of a democracy governed by two parties, and we must be able to express these differences with civility. But as anyone who has observed Washington knows, we are not always able to hold ourselves to these standards of conduct. The modern political climate is nastier than any in recent memory, marked by party members who tend to hector one another when they should be engaged in constructive debate. 

Meanwhile, last month, Wasserman Schultz used carefully-calibrated, graphic domestic violence imagery to criticize Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his Tea Party supporters: “Scott Walker has given women the back of his hand. I know that is stark. I know that is direct. But that is reality . . .What Republican tea party extremists like Scott Walker are doing is they are grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back. It is not going to happen on our watch.” Equally striking was the DNC’s initial response to criticism of the congresswoman’s remarks: an unseemly pivot to the usual “war on women” talking points.

Leaving aside the question of hypocrisy, there is real cause for concern when campaigns and political debates generally focus on stirring up ugly passions (much) more than persuading. Thankfully, our republic has managed to survive some pretty ugly (and vapid) campaigns, going all the way back to the debate over the Constitution.

In Federalist 67, Alexander Hamilton fumes with righteous indignation over what he believes can only be deliberate, dishonest fear-mongering by the prominent Anti-Federalist, Cato (probably New York Governor and Hamilton rival George Clinton). In his fifth essay, Cato had asserted that future presidents might use their ability to fill between-elections vacancies in the Senate to corrupt the Congress.

Not exactly Wasserman Schultz territory, but also not true: that power, then and now, belongs to state governors, not the president, as Hamilton demonstrates in five passionately-reasoned paragraphs of constitutional exegesis–passionate enough to warrant an end-of-the-essay defense of his uncharacteristic intemperance: “nor have I scrupled, in so flagrant a case, to allow myself a severity of animadversion little congenial with the general spirit of these papers.” Remember that line the next time you need to take a lying operative to task.

The Federalist is, in fact, among its other merits, an excellent guide to civil discourse. Its authors did not believe naively or duplicitously that American politics could move beyond partisanship any more than they thought that they could convince Americans, to paraphrase Lincoln, to stop caring about things that all men rightly care about. Still, they knew that “[t]he instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” In the face of this political reality, they modeled the statesman’s duty to “refine and enlarge the public view” in The Federalist.

As Federalist 67 demonstrates, this didn’t mean always writing in hushed or ostentatiously high-minded tones. Instead, they measured their reaction to criticism against their best (charitable) judgment concerning the critic’s intention to promote the common good–not against the wound to their pride in being challenged, nor their prospects for quick political gain, nor even the stridency of the critic’s charge.

For example, in Federalist 45, Madison heaps scorn on those who seem to prefer protecting the prerogatives of state politicians over protecting the rights of the people. Just two essays later, however, he speaks highly of those concerned that the Constitution violates the separation of powers, an “essential precaution in favor of liberty”–and then shows them that they have misunderstood the principle and its application to the Constitution. Hamilton could do the same: honoring, in Federalist 1, those whose opposition to the Constitution resulted from an “over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people,” while reminding them “that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.”

Harvard Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield’s underappreciated A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy applies this idea to our contemporary context:

If you listen to the talk shows, you will hear your fellow citizens arguing passionately pro and con with advocacy and denigration, accusation and defense. Politics means taking sides; it is partisan. Not only are there sides – typically liberal and conservative in our day – but they argue against each other, so that it is liberals versus conservatives. . . . Each side defends its own interests, those of schoolteachers versus those of stockbrokers, for example, but they also appeal to something they have in common: the common good. 

Prof. Mansfield argues that politics involves partisans taking sides yet granting, when apt, to one’s political opponents that “they also appeal to something they have in common: the common good.”

Progressivism’s illiberal faith in (inevitable) progress logically leaves its adherents with little room to believe that their political opponents are authentically interested in the common good. Thus, in practicing their public philosophy, Progressives too rarely show an interest in deliberating and arguing about the common good, which they have already irrefutably defined, or even the means to their ends, since their go-to formula–combining taxpayer money, bureaucratic discretion, and popular passion–has rarely been known (or, at least, acknowledged) to fail.

What’s a critic of Progressivism to do? Follow the example of Publius: argue vigorously about the common good while judging with charity the aims of one’s opponents. Respect friends of the rights and liberties of the people wherever you find them and seek to correct them when their means don’t match their ends.

Lies should be called lies and there’s no need to assume that well-intentioned plans and proposals will end well, but a healthy measure of forbearance joined with an openness to self-criticism will do more for the cause of republican government than a conservative equivalent of the Big Smathers Lie. The result will either be to reopen the public square to civil discourse by enlivening a debate over the common good or by showing Progressives, in their intransigence, to be both cynical and unserious about the most important political questions.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.