The Case for Incivility

Confronting officials isn’t new. But it’s necessary.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen looks on as White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a press briefing at the White House.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen looks on as White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington on June 18. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Fifty years ago this summer, the collapse of this country seemed not only plausible, but imminent. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, touching off a series of riots across the country that led to dozens of deaths, thousands of arrests, and the razing of large swaths of major cities. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was murdered in the middle of a presidential campaign. By the time clashes broke out between police and demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention that August, a sense that the nation was spiraling toward anarchy had set in. Anarchy never really came, but the year’s confrontations offered a preview of the public violence that would continue through the end of the decade and into the beginning of the 1970s.

This past week has been relatively pleasant by comparison, but you wouldn’t know it reading the commentary on White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ thwarted meal at the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia. She was asked to leave by co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson, who explained to the Washington Post that Sanders’ presence made members of the staff uncomfortable and that her work conflicted with the restaurant’s values. This was the third time in recent days that a member of the Trump administration had been confronted at a restaurant. Last week, White House adviser Stephen Miller was heckled at a Mexican restaurant in Washington. Two nights later, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen left another Mexican restaurant in town after being confronted by activists protesting the administration’s family separations.

This has triggered a remarkable upwelling of bipartisan angst. “If you want to live in the kind of society where you’re harassed by those who oppose your worldview every time you go out in public - or stay home, for that matter,” conservative commentator Ben Shapiro tweeted, “by all means let’s continue down this ridiculous, stupid path.” “I guess we’re heading into an America with Democrat-only restaurants, which will lead to Republican-only restaurants,” Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted. “Do the fools who threw Sarah out, and the people who cheer them on, really want us to be that kind of country?” Former Obama adviser David Axelrod said the country is now “divided by red plates & blue plates!” Arne Duncan, the former Obama education secretary, compared the move to racial segregation. “The history in our country of denying people access to restaurants, to water fountains and even bathrooms is too raw, too real,” he wrote.

On Sunday, the Washington Post’s editorial board wrote that while the paper stands against the Trump administration’s border policy and racist rhetoric, they “nonetheless would argue that Ms. Huckabee, and Ms. Nielsen and Mr. Miller, too, should be allowed to eat dinner in peace. Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment.”

The underlying premise of these reactions—that the restaurant protests herald a new and troubling level of political reaction—deserves some prodding. America’s political history has been incredibly raucous and tumultuous from the beginning, and one hardly has to reach back to the events of 1968 or 1868 to illustrate this. You need only to turn to the late campaign rallies for a man now widely heralded by pundits as a paragon of civility and statesmanship in contemporary American politics. There was a period in the fall of 2008 when it seemed like every broadcast from the campaign trail carried news of a new outburst from the audiences for John McCain and Sarah Palin. “Terrorist.” “Traitor.” “Off with his head.” “Kill him.” These were cries spurred in no small part by the McCain campaign’s lies and innuendo about Barack Obama’s affiliations with radicals. We were treated, after Obama’s election, to images of the president being hanged or burned in effigy. One of the more inventive and memorable anti-Obama displays was a rodeo show featuring a clown “Obama” chased by a bull. “We’re going to stomp Obama now,” the announcer would say. The racist images of Barack and Michelle Obama as monkeys—of Obama as a tribesman in a loincloth with a bone through his nose—seemed, after a while, to blur into each other. There was a fad, early on, of bringing loaded guns to Obama’s speeches. That died down, but the fantasies of armed revolution, talk of 1776, and “watering the tree of liberty” did not.

The very same conservatives who inspired and encouraged that rhetoric are now admonishing liberals and the left for incivility. The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson tweeted Saturday that Sanders’ treatment is evidence of a new political pathology. “It is actually a sign of sickness in our country that political opposites cheer/jeer a business refusing service due to political beliefs,” he wrote. This from a man who responded to the passage of a ban on phosphates in dish soap in Spokane County, Washington, in 2009 by invoking the possibility of armed insurrection. “At what point do the people tell the politicians to go to hell?” he asked in a post at RedState. “At what point do they get off the couch, march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot? … Were I in Washington State, I’d be cleaning my gun right about now waiting to protect my property from the coming riots or the government apparatchiks coming to enforce nonsensical legislation.”

This kind of extremism has been deployed on the behalf of conservative social politics for decades. The Washington Post’s editorial on the restaurant protests speculates that anti-abortion activists inspired by the left might decide “judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families,” an odd statement that erases the pro-life movement’s already very long history of antagonism and open violence, including the assassination of doctor George Tiller in 2009, a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2015 that killed three, and seven other murders by pro-life extremists that have occurred since 1977. Vandalism and threats against abortion providers and advocates over the same period number in the thousands.

It is routinely said that political incivility is counterproductive—that rudeness and caustic or intemperate rhetoric can alienate potential allies and provoke a backlash from political opponents. If this were always or reliably true, the American right would have been decimated long ago. Instead, they’ve just elected a man who has encouraged political violence—a casual racist and misogynist and an unrepentant boor—to the presidency of the United States. The Republican Party holds the House, the Senate, and total control of government in 26 states. The right’s turn toward incivility has, plainly, been a spectacular success for fairly obvious reasons: Rude and extreme rhetoric has galvanized and mobilized the Republican base by catastrophizing the consequences of Democratic governance and demographic change. This has won the right the support of less–ideologically committed and active voters who have found the rhetoric of Trump and precursors like Sarah Palin relatable, refreshing, and “honest.”

Politics is a complicated business. Sometimes nice guys win. Sometimes they lose. And sometimes they do things that aren’t very nice. In tweets criticizing liberals over the protests and shaming of Trump officials, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf invoked Martin Luther King as a moral example worth following on the “ ‘civility works better’ side,” as critics of contemporary liberal and left activism and identity politics often do. In fact, King spoke out against those who characterized forms of nonviolent activism as uncivil. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate,” he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ ” And, of course, many of the civil rights movement’s now-romanticized and revered sit-ins were literally attempts to interrupt meals served by and to people the movement’s activists disagreed with. It is hard to imagine the pundit class reacting positively to hundreds or even a thousand liberal activists crowding into, say, a bakery that refuses to sell wedding cakes to gay people, in an attempt to shut it down or force compliance with their political beliefs. That is precisely what civil rights activists did.

Civility scolds who invoke King generally elide moreover the extent to which the fear of black rioting and violence was an impetus for the passage of civil rights legislation as well as the extent to which unrest can activate people as political actors. The latter dynamic was the crux of a paper assessing the impact of the 1992 Los Angeles riots published last year by Harvard’s Ryan Enos, Aaron Russell Kaufman, and Melissa L. Sands. After evaluating voter turnout and participation numbers and support for ballot initiatives aimed at addressing racial inequities in public education, they concluded that the riots were politically productive in achieving some of the goals desired by the rioters. “Our results indicate that a riot can help to accomplish policy or symbolic goals by mobilizing supporters or building sympathy among others,” they wrote. “We showed that white and African American voters were mobilized to register as Democrats and shifted their policy support toward public schools, net of a general shift in support for education. This mobilization appears to have persisted: those mobilized by the riot remained regular participators over a decade later and remained more Democratic than the general population, even after accounting for demographics.”

None of this is to say that incivility, protest, and unrest don’t incur real and potentially significant political and social costs, or that all political goals justify the tactics used to end, say, segregation. But these debates—usually undertaken in the wake of something the left has done or said about Trump, or some pseudo-crisis on campus—often lead to silly places, like the idea that liberals confronting Trump officials at, or barring them from, restaurants will inevitably lead to a crisis of tolerance nationwide, if not the collapse of the republic. The potential consequences of political incivility should be addressed soberly, with the worthiness of the cause the uncivil seek to advance always in mind.

In this case, the Trump administration has demonstrated that it is willing to turn its racist rhetoric into indisputably inhumane policy, and capable of doing so. The president and his associates are almost comically corrupt. In their lies about election fraud, calls to investigate their political opponents, and attacks on the legitimacy of the free press, they are hacking away at the principles underpinning American democracy. These are unambiguously valid objections to this administration held by people on both sides of the aisle that stand even if one does not believe, as liberals and those on the left do, that the Trump administration’s policies on, say, health care, taxation, and the environment are unconscionable.

If the invitations into polite society that have been extended to the likes of Corey Lewandowski and Steve Bannon are any indication, few people will face real sanctions for their involvement in this administration and with this president. Beyond elections, which do not actually offer the residents of D.C. the opportunity to take a stand against Trump, nonviolent protest, which clearly includes heckling and refusals of service, will be an outlet for liberals angry about what is happening and will happen under Trump for a long time. It is possible that the right will attempt to mimic them. That is fine. Nonviolent protest tactics should be open to everyone in a democracy who wishes to have their voices heard, and will assuredly be utilized to great effect in the century ahead, which promises to be incredibly contentious and uncivil no matter how politely liberals comport themselves.