The Dangers of Unbridled Civility


Lukas Werner

Civility can serve to bring us together, but it can also force disingenuous cooperation that does more harm than good.

Andrew Clair, Editor

Civility is often a necessary prerequisite for productive conversation. For those of us who occasionally argue with our parents at the dinner table, we know the moment one person raises their voice, the hope for compromise or agreement is utterly lost.

In Congress, the need for civility has been enshrined in our social expectations of congressional behavior and even in the procedures required on the House and Senate floors. Nancy Pelosi’s condemnation of former President Trump’s racially charged tweets, for instance, were struck from the record after they were ruled to be out of order. Time and time again, politicians will lecture about the need for politeness in debate.

But what does civility mean? What does it do in democracy?

To answer this question, we must first define “liberal civility.” 

Liberal civility is understood as the cultural and traditional rules or expectations that guide how Americans conduct political debates. These traditions serve as the scaffolding for healthy discourse, productive compromise, and most importantly, it instills a culture that values truth and democracy.

To be clear, “liberal” in this context refers to the more classical definition of liberal, meaning a political ideology that supports limited government, maximizing individual liberty, free markets, and representative democracy.

These cornerstones of civility sound obviously beneficial. And, in many ways, they are. As the Chinese philosopher Confucius once explained in The Analects,” rituals and traditions, even if neutral and amoral on their own, serve to shape our virtue and morality in positive ways. Especially for those in power, rituals can, as Confucius put it, bring about a “cosmic harmony.”

This is all to say that tradition and its relationship with culture is important and prevalent. 

But the consequences of these traditions, and the kinds of cultural attitudes they can instill, don’t always have positive effects.

It’s important to recognize that social norms are only as good as the actions they manifest. If we idolize concepts like liberal civility regardless of their actual consequences, it becomes difficult to question their validity.

The main issues with civility, therefore, have little to do with its inherent qualities but rather the context in which civility is evoked. 

In the case of American democracy, liberal civility has two main prerequisites to function properly.

Firstly, different political parties must all be involved in the tradition of liberal civility. If one political group disengages from civility while the other attempts to maintain it, the cultural pillars of liberal democracy begin to crack. The worst cases of this allow anti-democratic agitators to use civility as a shield from criticism. 

Shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection, for instance, President Joe Biden delivered remarks regarding the disturbingly large number of Republicans in Congress who refused to certify the election results. These remarks, which included a comment about how Americans will and should vote out leaders who work to support the Big Lie, prompted Senator Ted Cruz to chastise president Joe Biden for incivility.

Biden, though refraining from calling for the resignation of senators like Ted Cruz, despite their involvement in an attempted coup, commented on the similarities between the election-related lies of Cruz and Joseph Goebbells, a top Nazi propagandist.

“Really sad. At a time of deep national division, President-elect Biden’s choice to call his political opponents literal Nazis does nothing to bring us together or promote healing,” Cruz later tweeted in response.

This response demonstrates how civility can be abused if not used equally and genuinely by differing political sides. While Cruz supported Trump’s coup and downplayed the threat of the Jan. 6 terrorists, he also acts appalled by President Biden’s relatively calm response which did not even include a call for resignation. 

This leads to the second necessary prerequisite condition for liberal civility to function:

The fundamental implication of liberal civility, that all those in Congress support the continuation of democracy, must be reflected by political action — not just political conversation. 

Firstly, it is important to note that civility is an essentially theatrical tradition, meaning you must act as if the opposition supports democracy and has fundamentally similar goals. This baked-in assumption is necessary for civility to truly mean anything, since liberal civility is an inherently democratic tradition.

Sadly, Cruz’s use of civility in this context is not genuine, but simply a case where the aesthetic of civility is abused in order to silence legitimate opposition. 

If we look at Ted Cruz’s tweet through this lens and read between the lines, his tweet becomes less about the reasons for Joe Biden’s comments or even their contents, as if to say:

“You can’t say that. You have to act like I believe in democracy. It’s the rules!”

But, despite what Cruz’s tweet says, acting as if everything is fine does nothing to protect democracy. In fact, the tendency for civility to lull opponents of fascism into inaction is one of its most dangerous side effects.

Civility in a healthy democracy evidently plays an important role in facilitating progress. And, to be clear, little of this applies to interpersonal relationships. Unlike the conversations between friends and family, discourse on the Congress floor by members of Congress isn’t generally really meant to convince those involved in the conversation. Rather, congressional debate is for the American people to watch and possibly sway the votes of constituents across the U.S.

Civility in a healthy democracy can also be genuine if everyone involved believes in the continuation of the American experiment.

Civility in a healthy democracy can be more than a rhetorical strategy to appease far-right political elements, or a bludgeon to punish those who break character, but a powerful, meaningful cultural value that can support productive debate and compromise.

However, using civility haphazardly, and allowing political leaders like Ted Cruz to get away with it, only weakens the tradition. The more sparingly and judiciously the concept of civility is used, the more meaningful it becomes.

If someone evokes civility, especially if they have a history of anti-democratic action, they should not be taken for granted. Their claim should be analyzed skeptically in order to ensure the protection of free speech and to ensure civility does not prevent those in the public sphere from speaking the truth.