The Catholic University of America

This article was first published in the Stamford Advocate on Sept. 20, 2012. John Garvey wrote this as part of Civility in America, a lecture series held at the Ferguson Library in Stamford. The series is sponsored by The Ferguson Library, the city of Stamford, The Dilenschneider Group and Hearst Media Services.

Civility in America: Looking for Our Better Angels

By John Garvey

In his famous analysis of the American democratic experiment, "Democracy in America," French social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "The manners of the Americans are, then, the real cause which renders that people the only one of the American nations that is able to support a democratic government ..." At this moment, the 2012 presidential campaign is well under way. The airwaves, headlines, and news shows are flooded with claims that political banter has reached a new low. Perhaps we no longer have the manners that de Tocqueville praised.

A recent flap du jour concerned an ad sponsored by a political action committee that portrayed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as responsible for the death of the wife of a man laid off by Bain Capital, a private equity firm Romney ran until 2001. Political commentators right and left complain about the degradation of political rhetoric in congressional races across the country. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he promised to raise the level of political discourse, reach across the aisle, and resurrect mutual respect in American partisan politics. His promise struck a popular chord.

Wherever the blame lies, it is clear we have made little progress toward a more civil political landscape. But most Americans seem to agree that we need more civility in American politics.

History of (in)civility

I want to offer a modest suggestion for resetting the tone. But first I want to make two clarifications.

The first is about the history of civility in America. Whatever we might say about the acrimony of political discourse today, it is false to suggest that we are the first generation in American history to experience it. In moments of great moral and political strife, impassioned debate has frequently given way to what can only be described as incivility. The presidential election of 1800, a contest between two of our most revered founders, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, was among the most acrimonious in history. When South Carolina threatened to nullify a tariff against his wishes, President Andrew Jackson ordered armed forces to Charleston and privately threatened to hang John C. Calhoun, who led the forces against the tariff. Representative Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death for denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act (and for his cutting remarks against Andrew Butler, Brooks's kinsman and one of the act's authors).

These examples are drawn from three of the more dramatic moments in our political narrative, but our history is replete with examples of passions boiling over on the floor of the House and Senate, in the executive offices, and in the press. From civil rights to women's suffrage to prohibition to the Iraq War, the issues that inspire great political change in America have also inspired reactions ranging from polite dissent to unlawful retaliation. For that reason the history of civility in American politics is best described as one of hills and valleys across the decades, rather than one of sharp decline in our own generation.

Optimism and realism

The second point is about institutional correctives for uncivil manners. Our founders wisely anticipated this aspect of democracy, and made provision for it. The optimism of The Federalist Papers on the prospect of a self-governing people is matched by realism about the difficulty of reaching moral and political consensus in a democratic republic. The framers understood that such consensus would be rare and hard to come by, and that a successful democracy would have to be durable enough to survive great moral and political disagreement. They apportioned the authority for governance between states and nation so as to adjust for sectional differences. They separated powers on the national level so that temporary majorities couldn't have their way and discrete and insular minorities couldn't be oppressed.

But if the framers made provision for strong divisions of opinion within the body politic, even their genius could not eliminate altogether the need for a spirit of unity among the American people. The test of the strength of our commitment came when the framers' institutional design broke down over the issue of slavery. When America stood at the brink of a divided union, Abraham Lincoln reminded her citizens, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Lincoln certainly believed that slavery was morally repugnant. He probably thought that its advocates lacked moral integrity. Yet he argued that the bonds of affection must hold us together notwithstanding our moral differences. This is not unthinking patriotism. It is a deeply wise acknowledgment that union itself has a moral valence. If we believe in democracy, we must commit in our hearts to living as friends even when we can't agree.

Vision of citizenship

So what does this have to do with us, and civility? We are not distinctive in being guilty of incivility in our politics. But at this moment in history, we would do well to remember Lincoln's words about the bonds of citizenship. Our nation thrives on dialogue and the exchange of ideas, but we will founder if we allow our ideas to break the bonds that tie us together.

Americans will rarely enjoy consensus about how to handle the political and moral issues that face our nation. In moments of disagreement about deeply held beliefs, like those that led to the Civil War, debate will not be pleasant. But if America is to survive we must remember that we are one nation, and not two. Our political divisions, no matter how deeply they run, must not sunder our unity. We must remember that we share common ground -- not just enough to get a bill passed, but enough to be one nation with a shared desire for the good of our fellow citizens and the survival of our democratic institutions.

To do this, we must recollect a vision of citizenship that transcends party lines. Each of us has a responsibility to promote the common good by our advocacy for good policies and our efforts to elect good representatives, and people will always disagree about what and who are best. But we also have a responsibility to recognize and emphasize that in spite of those disagreements, we are citizens of one nation. At moments of great division in our politics we must remember to call upon the better angels of our nature.