It seems like it was eons ago, but it was actually a fairly recent occurrence: Americans used to be obsessed with “civility.” Not in the ironic or performative way they are today. We almost forget now, but once upon a time, every mass shooting or public performance of meanness would be followed by earnest talk of the need to restore civility. For a brief flicker of time in 2011, after the Gabby Giffords shooting, members of Congress actually agreed to tone down their partisan vitriol. For the first time in history that year, members of opposing parties sat together during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.
The Giffords demonstration was the end result of a long-brewing focus on restoring civility in public discourse. It wasn’t just that we all talked about civility all the time; there actually arose a massive Civility Industrial Complex, teeming with think tanks and academic chairs and conferences, all dedicated to the restoration of “civility” in public discourse. In 2010, a new bipartisan group called No Labels was founded to support politicians who “put labels aside and work across the aisle.” A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found marked improvement in civility on the floor of the House immediately after a series of civility retreats held from 1995 to 2007 for members of Congress. Bipartisan congressional retreats were undertaken to further foster cooperation across the political aisles.
White papers attempting to promote bipartisan consensus were published. Rigorous scholarship went to proving that the decline in civility in American civic life could reasonably be blamed on, variously, the internet, Congress, Citizens United, cable news, segregated neighborhoods, the advent of air-conditioning, the decline of civics education, the absence of trust in American institutions, and the coarsening of political discourse. We knew a lot about civility, and we were going to reverse-engineer our way right back to it.
There was a huge proliferation of think tanks, institutes, proposed rules, conferences, pledges, polls, blogs, and studies on civility and the urgent need for more of it. I know because I participated in a whole lot of them. I took pride in trying to reach across the political aisle to collaborate with conservative thinkers, and I was convinced that listening harder and meeting halfway could knit together well-intentioned people with legitimate differences of opinion. I believed—indeed I still believe—that most Americans agree about an awful lot, and that polarized media was cashing in on exploiting the places in which they differed. I believed that difficult conversations entered into in good faith could resolve fractures along the broken seams. I didn’t love the speeches and conferences and white papers; they always felt a little juvenile. But I loved that we were talking nicely to each other about talking nicely to each other. I was certain it was all leaning toward an America built on small but important good faith interactions, reminding us all that everyone fundamentally wanted the same things and could work together to achieve them.
Almost every justice on the Supreme Court used to plead for civics, civility, and respectful discourse. In 2011, Justice Anthony Kennedy said he thought American law and democracy was failing to set a good example for the rest of the world with “rational, quiet, thoughtful, respectful discussion and debate,” adding, perhaps presciently, that “the verdict on freedom is still out in over half the world, and the rest of the world is looking at us. They see the current dialogue and discourse and they are horrified by it.” Sandra Day O’Connor similarly used her platform post-retirement to beg for a more civil public discourse. Her rule for civility, as articulated after the Giffords shooting, was a simple one: “Before speaking out ask yourself whether your words are true, whether they are respectful and whether they are needed in our civil discussions.”
We were sooooo close. Except we never really were. In 2009, an evangelical Christian Republican and a Jewish Democrat launched an attempt to get every single member of Congress to sign a civility pledge in which members would promise to “be civil in my public discourse and behavior,” “be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them,” and “stand against incivility when I see it.” It cost $30,000, garnered only three signatories, and was shut down in 2011. The Republican who initiated it sadly reflected on why everyone hated it: “this political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat. That would probably be true about some liberals going the other direction, but I didn’t hear from them.” No redeeming value in the opposing side. We should have seen this coming.
Things have gone downhill quickly since. By 2019, 88 percent of voters “express concern and frustration about the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians,” according to a new Civility Poll by the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service. But while calls for civility continue to ring out, the always-elusive definition has morphed over the decade. After the election of Donald Trump, civility stopped being a call to reach across the aisle and listen to the other side; it became instead a call for the other side to shut up and listen to us. When Donald Trump demanded civil treatment during an election campaign in which he demeaned women, foreigners, and journalists, what he was seeking was to be free from criticism. Whenever we hear about the country being “ripped apart” now, it comes with demands that the other side of that debate be silenced and destroyed.
Civility, like free speech generally, is now something we increasingly demand for ourselves and refuse to afford others. Civility means that we get to wish others a merry Christmas whether or not others celebrate it. Civility means that you can refuse service to an LGBT patron of your business, and that she should be politely accepting of that choice. Civility isn’t about bridging the divide so much as it is about being treated civilly regardless of our words or actions.
Something fundamental shifted in the discussion after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Suddenly, the problem was no longer vicious name-calling and incivility on Twitter (Donald Trump had, after all, tethered his own political fortunes to precisely those behaviors). Suddenly “civility” was no longer appropriate material for think tanks and academic conferences seeking to have government work more constructively. Instead, it became a defense for why Trump officials, who had crafted an entire government of cruelty, deserved polite service in restaurants nonetheless. In quick succession, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant for her support of an avowedly anti-LGBTQ administration; Mitch McConnell, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller all faced similar abuse at dining establishments; and just this month Ken Cuccinelli hotfooted his way out of a D.C. bar after being confronted by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley for his role in family separation at the southern border. And suddenly, in the way it was being deployed in defense of all these people, civility had come to mean being nice to terrible people in public because it hurts their feelings when we do not.
Yes, there are still college seminars to be touted, and public fora to be attended, and strategies to be deployed. But the words have lost all meaning. Civility now has something to do with not talking, as opposed to how we talk. Mitch McConnell recently opined that “civility” is about angry tones, as opposed to corrupt actions, at least in the Senate: “We have plenty of incentive to get angry. But as you may have noticed, I try to stay calm, be respectful and don’t get caught up in these intense debates that we have.” Part of the reason we stopped speaking about civility, it seems, is that civility is now limited to how we speak. The other part, obviously, is that the same McConnell who doesn’t like being shouted down in public derides (in the same speech) “young people, incentivized I think by the faculty actually on college campuses, who don’t want to hear anything they may disagree with.” So civility ultimately comes down to the thing students owe Mitch McConnell, but that he owes nobody.
And that is the other big reason we stopped talking about civility and spending money on civility and pining for civility after 2016. Because “civility” also became code for capitulation to those who want to destroy us. As Adam Serwer summarized it in this month’s Atlantic: “There are two definitions of civility. The first is not being an asshole. The second is ‘I can do what I want and you can shut up.’ The latter definition currently dominates American political discourse.”
In that vein, Joe Biden caused a stir in June when he thought back fondly to a more civil era in politics: Recalling his debates with avowed segregationists like Mississippi’s James Eastland, Biden lamented, “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
The problem of course is that “getting things done” by meeting unabashed racists halfway no longer feels like a win-win, so much as capitulation. Serwer made this point eloquently: “The true threat to America is not an excess of vitriol, but that elites will come together in a consensus that cripples democracy and acquiesces to the dictatorship of a shrinking number of Americans who treat this nation as their exclusive birthright because of their race and religion. This is the false peace of dominance, not the true peace of justice. Until Americans’ current dispute over the nature of our republic is settled in favor of the latter, the dispute must continue.” In other words, there will be no civility if it means powerful men colluding to harm the powerless—nor should there be.
Neil Gorsuch, whose new book also tackles the issue of civility, starts from the same misconception Biden offered: “Self-governance turns on our treating each other as equals—as persons, with the courtesy and respect each person deserves—even when we vigorously disagree.” In a country, and under a Supreme Court, that does not treat citizens as equals, for economic, free speech, voting rights, or civil rights purposes, the demand that we speak to one another as if that were somehow the case, as opposed to a strangled dream, sounds a lot like performance. But probably nobody did more to kill civility than Donald Trump himself, who at a campaign rally last October in Charlotte, North Carolina, soberly intoned that, “everyone will benefit if we can end the politics of personal destruction. … It is time for us to replace the politics of anger and destruction with real debate about the issues.” Civility started as a call for listening. Trump has turned it into a demand for silence.
On the evening of his impeachment, the president attacked a dead member of Congress. In response, his widow pointedly asked for a return to “civility.” Trump’s spokespeople said in his defense that he is simply a “counterpuncher.” (Whom he was punching against, given that the subject of his attack is, again, dead, is unclear). Somewhere between Donald Trump’s speech and his wife’s selective anti-bullying campaign, the irony around demands for civility collapsed in on itself. Civility is no longer something that is achievable, or even useful. When it’s sought now, you can be certain it’s coming from the powerful asking you to be civil as they take away your rights and destroy lives. And that makes civility—once the promise of listening across difference, now the demand for cowed fealty—more than just a moral punchline. That the call for civil discourse has been weaponized to chide and marginalize the vulnerable makes it an apt metaphor for a decade that started with the faint promise of bipartisan unity and closes with promises of partisan annihilation.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus