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Civility is important in a democracy. So is dissent

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appears

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appears at the daily press briefing Monday. Credit: The Washington Post / Matt McClain

A Virginia restaurant’s refusal to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other recent incidents have sparked a big debate on civility. Here’s how we should think about this.

First: Contrary to what some Democrats say when they get scolded, democratic norms, including a default, surface-level politeness and willingness to embrace the idea (even if it’s a pretense) that all parties are working for the common good, are among the building blocks of a functioning republic. Democracy demands bargaining and compromise, and working with people for whom one might feel contempt. That’s especially true in the U.S. constitutional system, which makes it exceedingly difficult for any faction to take charge and implement its preferences all by itself.

Yes, it’s true that incivility, personal attacks and all kinds of nastiness have a long history going back to the earliest days of the republic. That doesn’t mean civility is unimportant; the past is just a reminder that American democracy never had some sort of golden age that we’ve been retreating from ever since.

Dissent, including strong peaceful protests, is equally part of democracy. To be effective, protest requires calling things out by name: If you think the administration is enforcing bigoted policies and encouraging people to embrace bigotry, then saying so is perfectly compatible with the best democratic values.

All of this creates a natural tension. One of the arguments for a democracy is that it channels passions over public policy into political action. Passion-filled politics are difficult to control; in a dispute over whether a war is just, it’s probably inevitable that some opponents will call the government “murderers” and that supporters are going to call anti-war protesters “traitors.” These kinds of attacks are bad for democracy and it’s fine to discourage intemperate language, but only if we simultaneously recognize that banning such language is a solution much worse than the problem.

The health of the republic is bolstered when citizens (especially those who hold office) find a language that is respectful of their fellow Americans and their right to fully participate as equals. And we know it’s natural for many to fall short of that standard, especially given that strong feelings are what drive people to get involved in politics in the first place. The truth is that this tension can’t be resolved. We can only muddle through.

That’s true of the general issue of civility and democracy. In these times, however, it’s a joke to focus on incivility by Democrats even as the Republican president routinely says things that are as bad as or worse than the attacks of the most irresponsible Democratic no-name precinct chair. Nor is President Donald Trump as much of an outlier as one might imagine. After all, his crusade to declare President Barack Obama a non-citizen was taken up by many Republican politicians; his repeated ethnic slur against Senator Elizabeth Warren, repeated this past weekend, was adapted from one used against her by Massachusetts Republicans.

This strain of Republican rhetoric goes back to Newt Gingrich in the 1980s and 1990s. The lawmaker from Georgia who became House speaker was not just prone to excessive rhetoric himself, but trained Republican politicians to use extreme wording.

Then there’s Republican-aligned media, a constant source of institutionalized incivility that encourages a politics of grievance by searching out any examples of Democratic rhetorical excess.

Basically, anyone who thinks the parties are even remotely equivalent on this score is treating Trump as if he doesn’t count. And anyone who thinks the parties are roughly equivalent if you remove Trump from the equation should take Kevin Drum’s advice and spend more time critically monitoring Republican-aligned media. And, as Norm Ornstein reminds us, critical monitoring is not the same as reacting to the problem of incivility with a “knee-jerk response” of trying to find equal fault on both sides. and using conservative outlets only as a source for finding examples of poor Democratic behavior.

It’s worrisome when Democrats try to cope with the policies and rhetorical practices of the unified Republican government by dismissing the value of civility in a healthy democracy. I worry a lot more, however, about institutionalized incivility from Republicans (including their overreaction to Democratic excesses and their efforts to convince the neutral press to do the same). I don’t think this is a solvable problem, but it can be at least somewhat alleviated if the media gets better at resisting the impulse to avoid trouble by criticizing both sides equally.