The Founders, Civility, and Godzilla
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Last Friday (the 20th) I went to the 2018 Moral & Ethical Leadership Conference, put on by the BYU Management Society. They had a pretty impressive lineup of speakers, including Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, or as he liked to joke, the “other senator” from Arizona, given that he has been overshadowed by John McCain the entire time he’s been in the Senate. And as it turns out, this is unlikely to change since Senator Flake has decided not to run for re-election (also McCain died recently.) He didn’t get into his reasons during his speech, but most people agree the biggest was that he was unlikely to win the Republican primary. And why was that? Well despite both of them, in theory, being Republicans, Flake and Trump do not get along, at all. And for good or bad (probably bad) these days it’s difficult to win a Republican primary if you’re anti-Trump. Which Flake definitely is, and, unlike most Republicans, has not been shy about expressing, going so far as to write a book, Conscience of a Conservative, where he declares Trump to be a domestic and international menace.
I picked up a copy of Flake’s book while I was at the conference, though I haven’t a chance to read it yet, so I can only speak to what I heard him say, and his primary theme seemed to boil down to a call for greater civility. In fact I would hazard to say that the need for greater civility was the unofficial theme for the conference as a whole. Given the nation’s current political climate and leadership, this is not exactly surprising. Of course, if Flake’s call for civility was entirely unobjectionable he wouldn’t need to give a speech defending it, let alone write a whole book on the subject. But lately, even this principal is controversial, and under attack. I thought that looking into why might make a good topic for a post.
To start, let’s look at the area Senator Flake presumably knows the most about, congress. What does civility look like in congress? Is it just people saying things like, “I graciously yield my time to the Honorable Senator from Kentucky”? I suppose that this sort of etiquette is a small part of it, but only a very small part. No, I think civility in congress, as Senator Flake described it, is more about people calmly working together despite having very different ideologies.
That does seem to be an admirable goal, but unless all members of congress are saints (which clearly isn’t the case), then in order for this type of civility to be present it has to provide some benefit. In the past it may have been enough that it made them look noble and statesman like. But these days, at least among the base, it does the exact opposite, and makes them look traitorous and cowardly. In the past it might also have been driven by a sense of duty, a duty to put aside differences and work together for the good of the country, but the general concept of duty has been on a long slow decline since the early 1800’s (at least according to the Google Ngram Viewer.)
No, getting members of the two parties to work together, no longer makes them look good, and it’s definitely going to require something a lot more concrete than the fading idea of duty. It’s going to require something like money, money for something they want, something that will make the people back home happy, and which will, in turn, help them get elected. Maybe something in a bill? Something set aside specifically to this purpose? Something... “earmarked”?
This history of earmarks is interesting. You can find things which fit the basic criteria going all the way back to 1789, though initially such things were definitely rare. By the end of the 1800’s the practice was common enough that it started to be called pork-barrel politics, but apparently things really took off between 1994 and 2005 (the most memorable example being the Bridge to Nowhere). As you might imagine some people took issue with the practice and in 2010 they were banned (though not for non-profits). And who lead the charge on that? Who was the most ferocious opponent of earmarks? As it turns out, it was Senator Flake. Here’s the relevant section from Wikipedia:
Flake is "known for his ardent opposition to earmarks."He has been called an "anti-earmark crusader," and frequently challenges earmarks proposed by other members of Congress. Since May 2006, he has become prominent with the "Flake Hour," a tradition at the end of spending bill debates in which he asks earmark sponsors to come to the house floor and justify why taxpayers should pay for their "pet projects." He is credited with prompting House rule changes to require earmark sponsors to identify themselves.
Until September 2010, Flake issued a press release listing an "egregious earmark of the week" every Friday. Usually the earmark will be followed by Flake making a humorous comment; as an example, Rep. Flake once said of Congressman Jose Serrano's $150,000 earmark to fix plumbing in Italian restaurants, "I would argue this is one cannoli the taxpayer doesn't want to take a bite of." The "earmark of the week" releases were ended and replaced with the "So Just How Broke Are We?" series of releases. In March 2010, the House Appropriations Committee implemented rules to ban earmarks to for-profit corporations, a change Flake supported. "This is the best day we've had in a while," he said to the New York Times, which reported that approximately 1,000 such earmarks were authorized in the previous year, worth $1.7 billion.
Senator Flake’s opposition to earmarks is not only easy to understand, it’s laudable. But in retrospect, some people have started wondering whether it might be part of the reason why congress has become so “uncivil”. Their theory is straightforward: Earmarks were one more thing that could be offered as part of the negotiation for a congress member’s vote. One that’s particularly useful when you’re crossing party lines and the member is otherwise opposed to or at least unsure about the bill. You overcome their reluctance by, in essence, offering to “pay” them if it passed. It’s a basic law of economics that you get more of what you pay for and so naturally you ended up with more bipartisan support for bills which contained earmarks. Eliminate earmarks and you have less bipartisan support. And if civility means working together across party lines, that means you have less civility.
Now, I’m not here to say that earmarks are actually good. Or that banning them is solely responsible for the breakdown in civility and working across the aisle. Or to make any insinuation that Flake is a hypocrite, or that he screwed up. Rather, what I want to do is point out how complicated even a simple call for civility ends up being.
As I said, civility seemed to be the unofficial theme of the conference, so what did other people have to say on the subject? Well I just got done asserting that it was complicated, so I guess I should move to the speaker who offered a very simple definition of civility. This was Eric Dowdle, an artist who specializes in drawing very interesting landscapes and cityscapes and then selling them as puzzles. He defined civility as character plus diversity.
You may wonder what qualifies him to make such a definitive proclamation. (Though as a blogger with no especial qualifications myself, I don’t.) Or at least you may wonder what prompted the invitation to speak from BYU Management Society. Well Dowdle, in addition to being an artist, is the founder and chairman of the board for the proposed George Washington Museum of American History. This is an effort to assemble an exhibition of the 250 “Greatest Moments in American History” and then take them on tour of all 50 states in 2026 (the 250th year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence). After which it will have a permanent home in Utah. As you can imagine the Museum has many goals from increasing historical literacy, to a celebration of the Founders, but included in there is a goal to educate people on, what Dowdle feels, are the twin pillars of America: character and diversity. Which, when combined, create civility.
As you can imagine he is also worried about the ills of the nation and the increasing polarization. And he hopes that by educating people about these twin pillars that he will help bring about a return to civility, much like Senator Flake. And, once again, this is another clearly laudable goal, though I’m not sure that his definition entirely captures the full nuance of what civility is. That said, I nevertheless think that it captures something important about what civility means at the present political moment.
I’m a big fan of “character”, but I think it’s place in the equation leads to some weird conclusions. Would he say that people who push diversity, while ignoring civility, must therefore lack character? If so that would be a fairly incendiary claim, and if true would immediately lead to a question of what sort of character do they lack? What aspect of character is not present in their advocacy for diversity? Does character equal a respect for a certain set of ethics? Could it be extended to mean respect for the rule of law? On the other hand, and probably even more inflammatory, are we meant to conclude that people who civilly rail against diversity do it because they have a lot of character? It is interesting to ask what ramifications this equation has if taken to its extreme, but, unfortunately, I think it breaks down pretty quickly.
If we leave aside character, then I still think he makes an important point about the connection between diversity and civility, and the need for increasing civility as society becomes increasingly diverse. (In fact, if we hold character constant then this is certainly one way to read his formula.) And it’s also interesting to draw inspiration, as he clearly is, from the founding of the country. So much of what made it into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was designed to create civility among diverse groups. In that vein, allow me to offer another equation, one that might have been on the minds of the founders: diversity minus civility equals violence. Before the American Revolution there was a lot of violence generated by ideological diversity, something which would have been on the minds of the founders. I refer you to the European Wars of Religion:
The conflicts began with the Knights' Revolt (1522), a minor war in the Holy Roman Empire. Warfare intensified after the Catholic Church began the Counter-Reformation in 1545 to counter the growth of Protestantism. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), which devastated Germany and killed one-third of its population. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) put an end to the war by recognising three separate Christian traditions in the Holy Roman Empire: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Although many European leaders were 'sickened' by the religious bloodshed by 1648, religious wars continued to be waged in the post-Westphalian period until the 1710s.
I understand the explicitly religious wars were over by the time of the Revolution, but if you draw a graph from “killing one third of the population”, through continued bloodshed up until 1710, and zero it out at the election of JFK, who won despite people wondering if he was going to take orders from the Pope you’ll see that in 1776, things were still pretty heated, and the founders knew that the only way to avoid violence in the diverse republic they were creating was to bake a lot of rules for civility right into the Constitution.
This is not to say that we’ve always been civil, or that there hasn’t been violence, for example you may have heard of a little thing called the Civil War (which, despite its title was very uncivil). Further, this doesn’t mean that the rules the Founders added were perfect, or that they were were always followed. And it most especially doesn’t mean that there weren’t any trade-offs. A subject I’ll be returning to shortly. But, I think if you look back on things, especially relative to other nations at the same point in history. The US did pretty well at accommodating a diversity of nations and peoples and ideologies with a minimum of violence. In fact, it may be argued, we did so well that people no longer see the need for some of the rules the Founders came up with, in particular Freedom of Speech.
I’ve talked about free speech a lot in this space, and while I tend to be pretty vigorous in it’s defense, I can also acknowledge that much like the other two endeavors we’ve considered, defending free speech is laudable, but, particularly in this day and age, can be complicated as well. This also takes me to another of the speakers from the conference, McKay Coppins, a columnist for the Atlantic. I also picked up his book, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party's Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, and even had him sign it, though, once again, I haven’t had time to read it.
As a columnist you might imagine he is a strong supporter of free speech and opened his talk with a Thomas Jefferson quote that’s a favorite of journalists everywhere. (Back to the Founders!)
The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
As I recall he only recited the last bit, but I think it’s worth quoting the first part, since one of the things which has definitely changed since the time of Jefferson is what “full information” means, what “channel” they get that through, and the way it “penetrates”. Which is to say, would Jefferson be as confident in saying, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without social media or social media without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I suspect he might not.
As I said things have become more complicated, and Coppins did acknowledge that in his speech. In particular he talked about fake news, and the waning power of the larger media outlets. To combat this he urged us all to be individual media outlets. To civilly work to combat misinformation when we see it, and help move the national conversation in the direction of the truth. The Jeffersonian idea that more speech is preferable to less speech and that if we encourage as many people as possible to speak that this will create the “full information” necessary for truth to triumph.
I currently agree with Coppins that this strategy is probably the best way forward, but I also know that when presented with this strategy many people argue that it’s largely a continuation of the status quo and as such will allow those with the biggest microphone to continue to dominate the discussion, and that whatever power imbalance which currently exists will continue to exist. Given the overlap in our proposed strategy I was curious to get Coppins take on it, and asked him about it during the question and answer period. He pointed out that when you’re encouraging more speech you’re also encouraging those who haven’t had much of a voice. In fact, you may even offer them more encouragement, and that hopefully as this process continues it won’t be the same individuals and organizations doing all the talking.
All of this finally takes us to the arguments against civility. As I already mentioned, there are those, traditionally on the left, who feel that civility is just an excuse to continue to silence and oppress those who are already powerless. For example this quote my friend Stuart Parker, who’s running for office in British Columbia:
I read a post by a fellow socialist running for office today and I feel I need to make a point about calls for civility: liberalism is about civility. Socialism is not. Socialism is about meeting people who are being screwed-over by the system and hearing them out. And a crucial part of hearing them out is hearing their anger.
And we, as socialists, should share that anger. A full debate, a debate that encompasses the global extinction event, the affordability crisis and the opioid epidemic is a debate that confronts pain, death and loss. It confronts injustice. Our discourse today should not seek to suppress people's justified rage but to channel it, to hone it, to express it with precision without losing one iota of the urgency and conviction it contains.
British Columbians are outraged. And they are seeking candidates to articulate their rage for them. Let's not let them down.
Instinctively you’ve got to have sympathy for this position. But as he points out, liberalism, particularly classical liberalism, the liberalism of the Founders, does place a high degree of importance on civility, and I don’t think we should casually toss that aside. It’s been a long time since we’ve experienced true incivility, and as I pointed out in a previous post, we imagine that we can tolerate small amounts of incivility, and censorship and it won’t lead to violence or repression. Or that if it does it will be righteous violence and repression of only evil people. But that’s not how it works. Rather once things start it’s less like a righteous cleansing and more like Godzilla trudging back and forth through your city. In other words, once those norms get broken it becomes difficult to draw a line. I think this is the lesson the founders had learned from the several hundred years before the revolution, and it’s the lesson they tried to impart to us.
To be fair, it is not only people on the left that have turned against civility. It’s also happening on the right, particularly the alt-right, who insofar as they have a point, believe that conservatives have very civilly and very politely lost every single battle in the culture war. Whether or not this is true (though I’ve already written about how it’s basically true) it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should abandon civility. (Though, i guess, there’s always a chance it might mean that…) In fact if it means anything I would opine that it means we need to be more civil and less censorious, especially with respect to the typical Trump supporter, lest we inadvertently confirm this exact belief, the idea that there is no point in being civil. Of course, as far as I can tell this is the exact opposite of the direction we’re headed. In fact, I just barely saw that apparently James Woods has been locked out of Twitter. (Though, as usual with stuff that just happened this may turn out later to be incorrect.)
Putting everything I’ve said together I suppose my central point is that the current situation is more complicated than it may at first appear, and that a simple return to civility may be more difficult and less effective than people think. But, that we should push for it anyway, because the alternative has the potential to be much, much worse.
Every week I try to civilly and with humor ask for donations, but perhaps the week I write about civility should be the one week I abandon all that and just say, “GIVE ME MONEY!” Or maybe not.