October 13, 2021

Returning Civility to America’s Discourse

by Mark Franke

America was built by a group of people who disagreed about many things but still found enough common ground to write our Constitution and forge a stable republic. The battle for ratification had its elevated oratory, to be sure, but the new nation began in an environment marked by enthusiastic optimism for what the future held.

The feel-good times lasted only a few years, as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton soon squared off in a series of anonymous ad hominem attacks on the other in putative service to their policy disagreements. Even the iconic George Washington could not prevent this slide into what was called factions. He warned against it in his farewell address.

The elections of 1800, 1824 and 1828 were especially divisive and then the slavery issue upped the political decibels over the next thirty years to an unsustainable level, the result being 650,000 deaths. Things seemed to calm down after the Civil War, no doubt due to the nation’s reflection on what it had allowed to happen. 

The next hundred years or so appear to have been relatively calm, at least in retrospect. Our history books point to the hot issues of time as aberrations in the relentless advance of progress. Political parties still existed and fought vigorous election campaigns but the nation moved forward.

So much for the brief history lesson. 

When, and why, did things deteriorate to the point of toxicity we experience today? My notion is that it was Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court that became the tipping point. Instead of a look at the nominee’s eminent qualifications as a jurist, the process degraded into a political free-for-all ineffectively covered by an ideological fig leaf. A new slang word, Borked, entered the language, defined by Merriam-Webster as “to attack or defeat (a nominee or candidate for public office) unfairly through an organized campaign of harsh public criticism or vilification.” Things have been heading south ever since.

No wonder I prefer to live in a cocoon of my own making. I try to keep the unpleasantness of life out by pretending it doesn’t exist. My problem is that I read too much, risking upset of my smug world. Two recent articles wrenched me out of this self-indulgent complacency.

Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security in the Trump administration, wrote in Heritage’s Daily Signal newsletter about the daily organized protests in front of his home. The protesters blocked his street for about an hour each time while shouting through loudspeakers. What surprised me about Wolf’s account was not that these illegal protests happened, which are all too frequent occurrences these days, but that several of his neighbors participated. 

Neighbors? Didn’t these people realize they must live together? They don’t have to be bosom buddies but still. This was suburban Washington so maybe the social mores are different there from what we observe here in Indiana. Perhaps the red-hot rhetoric coming from the corridors of government burns through residential neighborhoods located too close to the source of the fire.

I live in a middle-class neighborhood where, no surprise here, most families are conservative. One couple, best described as 1960s liberals, probably votes differently from the rest of us each November but they are numbered among our closest friends. We socialize several times each week and help each other out when needs arise. It is inconceivable that political differences would get in the way of a deep friendship. We certainly won’t be protesting in their front yard any time soon. 

The second article was a column in The Spectator World, the U. S. version of the venerable British magazine. “How to Argue with Your Family” was the headline that caught my eye. Surely this was a humorous take on dysfunctional family gatherings. Ah, no. The columnist, Mary Kate Skehan, was serious about how to prevent blow ups around the dinner table, especially at major holiday get-togethers.

Skehan’s advice is actually quite good. She summarized it as “defuse and de-escalate.” In other words keep the gas can away from the bonfire. It is unfortunate that such advice is even necessary.

Even though my family is mostly conservative, we have our liberals and even an extreme progressive or two. They are still welcome at our table and we invite them to visit and stay with us as often as possible. We focus on what unites us, our family.

Finding common ground can be difficult but surely it is possible among intelligent people of good will. People can see the same problem but prefer different solutions, sometimes incompatible solutions in a political sense. Then you just have to agree to disagree and move on.

Friendship can rise above most differences. A generous application of civility in our discourse will serve us well. And, dare I say it, it is the American way.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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