Civility, Conflict, and Democracy

By Avram Reisman

Recently, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib faced a barrage of criticism from pundits and the media for her plans to “impeach the motherf*****” referring to President Trump. Also recently, continuing his campaign tactic of name-calling as President, Mr. Trump called a Democratic member of Congress “little Adam Schitt.” And before both of these incidents, there was already a lively discussion on the importance of civility in U.S. politics and democracy.

To determine whether civility matters in democracy, it’s important to work from what democracy is or ought to be. Political scientist and democracy theorist Adam Przeworski defined democracy as contingent, institutionalized uncertainty. As a regime-type, democracy requires the participants in political, social, and economic conflicts to pursue their interests through the nonviolent means of elections and other deliberative bodies (union-business arbitration, the media). All societies have conflicts, but different regimes have different means of channeling those conflicts into or away from state power.

Authoritarian regimes exist because certain sides of salient conflicts in society have recognized that they can dominate the other side through force or popular legitimacy. Democratic regimes emerge when the balance of power within conflicts in society have sufficiently shifted, often due to international pressure, to require compromise by the previously dominant side or face open rebellion and civil war. Subsequent regime transitions, either democratic or partially democratic, acknowledge this shift in power. The advantage of democratic transitions for those already dominating conflicts is that they can avoid a total realignment of the conflict through a civil war and often maintain a relative advantage through the new institutional structure for a long time. Democracy is not, then, a way to resolve conflicts, but rather a way for conflicts to be resolved without violence over time through nonviolent political means. As Carl von Clausewitz once said, “War is politics by other means,” but in a democracy politics is war by other means.

Civility in democratic politics, then, is by no means an assurance. Conflict and civility do not mix. What is required for civility is trust and trust is borne from the perception of good faith in the opposing side. Robert Putnam famously argued that this sort of trust is a result of interactions in apolitical realms, specifically civic associations. Putnam’s larger argument is debatable, but from his definition of its source, we can surmise that trust requires recognition in the other of their complex humanity and the belief that the other sees your own humanity as well. By complex humanity, I mean that a human being is more than just political beliefs and the side of the conflict they take. Recognizing all the complexities of a single human being is an impossible task but being able to look beyond the political aspect of a person’s identity is crucial to overcoming the perception of the other as an enemy.

Civility in democratic politics is much easier when the society is homogenous or has a strong consensus on certain fundamental political, economic, or social issues that we can think of as resolved conflicts. The enfranchised population of the United States at its founding was largely homogenous, but nevertheless, it was founded with some efforts to appease the sides of the current conflicts as defined by the power relations at the time. The infamous 3/5 clause and the decision to have two senators for each state and representatives awarded based on population was a way to ensure that small states and slave states would not be dominated by large states and free states. The American Civil War was fought largely over the institution of slavery, not so much out of an ideological belief in man’s freedom, but over interest conflicts that resulted largely from slavery’s fundamental role in the Southern economy. The North, for example, favored more tariffs and protectionism to promote its industrial economy while the South supported free trade. These different economic structures led to different social and political interests and as the United States expanded westward, Southern interests eventually lost their political parity in the Senate. Specifically, the acceptance of California, Minnesota, Oregon, and Kansas as free states tipped the scales. The Southern states no longer had a way to ensure their interests were protected by the state, so they seceded.

The victory of the Union in the Civil War seemingly ended a conflict, but it unleashed new ones through the freeing and enfranchisement (though limited) of black men. This was a power shift and one that certainly favored Republicans and Northern economic interests as evident by the domination Republicans had over politics for several decades. However, the decision not to economically empower black men through land redistribution ultimately led to a reformed Southern economy (shifting to sharecropping) that did not significantly industrialize for some time. The lack of empowerment of black men at the time ensured that black interests would be greatly limited in the political system. Particularly, the lack of economic redistribution for black families led to the marginalized situation for their descendants and was reinforced by policies during the eras of Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Suffice it to say that the racial conflict in the United States is one of many unresolved conflicts.

Given this state of intersecting conflicts, what is surprising is not that the United States’ politics is no longer civil, it is surprising it was civil at all. Why was civility previously a norm in U.S. politics? In short, there was once trust between either or both elites and the general public despite political differences. That trust was based on the belief that, though we had different ideas about what policies would enhance the common good, most people assumed that we had the same goal in mind. Indeed, this perception of the pursuit of particular interests over the common good is precisely what Professor Kathy Cramer argues defines “the politics of resentment” in her book of the same name about Wisconsin politics. However, it is not certain what causes this lack of trust.

Civility is not something that can be willed into political dialogue. Right now, U.S. politics exists in a society dealing with significant social and economic inequalities in which debate is heated and shines a light on our differences instead of our similarities. In an age of avatars, trolls, and arguments by meme, Americans will somehow need to recognize the other poster as something other than a caricature of negative connotations we associate with the opposing side of the aisle.

Serious institutional changes are likely necessary in a world where so much interaction is superficial. At a minimum, the apparent zero-sum game of politics has to be fixed and the general welfare must be advanced substantially. Mutually beneficial interests must be identified by the vast majority to join together and forge a new political consensus. This may require difficult compromise by those with strong ideological beliefs. Nevertheless, trying to rebuild civility through negotiation will, in turn, take essential steps in trying to resolve the conflicts that have been unaddressed in American democracy.

Avram Reisman is an Editor for the Democracy and Society Journal. He is a Masters candidate in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown University.