Donald Trump, Maxine Waters

Civil Offenses: Those Calling for Political Civility Often Have the Least to Lose

The superficial critique of political dysfunction allows us to ignore its more substantive causes.


A version of this story ran in the December 2017 issue.

Everyone thinks there’s something amiss in the American political system falls into one of two camps — they either have a stylistic critique or a substantive one. Stylists think the way we do politics is corrupting things from the top down, while the Substantivists believe structural problems are rotting politics from the bottom up. It’s a cross-ideological divide. Many conservative Never Trumpers agree with the president on most issues, but think he’s a pig. They share a stylistic critique with many liberals who seek communion with moderate Republicans. The problem, the Stylists believe, has to do with individual responsibility; particular political actors are gross and venal.

Those who hold substantive critiques think the problem is collective, that it’s about institutions, trends and incentives — gerrymandering, political polarization, the breakdown of procedural consensus, court packing, permanent war, campaign finance, the nationalization of local politics, Breitbart, etc.

The stylistic critique is especially prevalent among centrists because it’s simple and easy. Stylists of late include George W. Bush, who recently lamented that “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

Jeff Flake, in his lauded Senate speech, focused almost entirely on style, decrying the “indecency of our discourse” and the “coarseness of our leadership.” The 51 percent of Democrats who now hold a positive opinion of W. are Stylists too, because they remember his personal decency but not his actions. Stylists, in short, would be more than happy to return to our previous mode of doing politics, with its familiar refrains and patterns, before the great orange Hindenburg crashed into the White House. But what led us to this moment if not the previous mode of doing politics?

It is good to be nice, and civility in a vacuum is a fine attribute. But it’s also worth noting who subscribes to the stylistic critique most strongly.

To paraphrase Anton Chigurh, if the norms you followed brought you to this, of what use were the norms? Bush revisionism is particularly telling — historians will remember his failed presidency as key to the development of Trumpism. The Republican Party’s ideological collapse, xenophobia, authoritarian fervor and love of conspiracy theories all have roots in the Bush years.

But Bush was civil, it is said. The key word in the stylistic critique is civility, of which it is imagined we once had but no longer have. But political incivility rises in America when something important is at stake. The republic’s early years, Reconstruction, the 1960s: These were rough times to do politics. Assassinations, terror attacks, congressmen beating each other nearly to death on the floor of the Senate. It was that way because the country stood on a precipice. It is not unreasonable to think that we do so again.

It is good to be nice, and civility in a vacuum is a fine attribute. But it’s also worth noting who subscribes to the stylistic critique most strongly — people with relatively less at stake. Many political consultants adopt this framework. The grand game’s not fun anymore, and they wish it were. The media adopts it too, because stylistic critiques are “safe,” according to the unwritten rules of objectivity.

Trump gives the State of the Union address.

Other civility fetishists include those who feel touched by a kind of political insanity they had previously been insulated from, especially people who live in blue states. “Before Trump was elected, the United States was a deeply imperfect democracy. Afterward, it became a shitty kleptocracy,” Slate’s Michelle Goldberg wrote. “Overnight, the very texture of reality changed, becoming surreal and dystopian.”

But of course, a great many people have been living in this America all along. If you’re a kid in Dan Patrick’s Texas terrified every day that your father is going to be deported, or you’re a sick mother in the Medicaid gap, you’ve lived in a surreal and dystopian place for many years. Your problem isn’t that Trump ignores norms.

But the most dangerous thing about stylism is that the superficial critique of political dysfunction allows us to ignore its causes. When Flake, after his speech, told the press that he believes the “fever will break,” that voters will eventually return to being rational, it invalidated everything he said on the floor because it made clear that he doesn’t understand the political moment at all. He, like us, is stuck in a do-loop, in which our politics is systematically worsening and we seek only to change its appearance.