I see two plausible explanations for the growing lack of civility in politics.
1. The individuals in question are nihilists who do not really believe in any moral constraints (at least on themselves.)
2. The individuals in question are so certain of the moral rightness of their position that they believe even repugnant means justify their end.
Some readers will doubtless object that there is a third explanation, namely, that Hollywood/television/talk radio/the Internet have coarsened our culture considerably, and it is only natural that political discourse would be affected along with everything else. I can’t disprove that theory, but I think it’s confusing instrumentality with root cause. Let’s acknowledge that the instrumentality is not unimportant, but focus here on the underlying thinking whose expression it has facilitated.
Let us begin by noting that the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. For example, the growing backlash against those brave stalwarts who continue to argue for a conjugal philosophy of marriage seems to fall into category 2, while I suspect the abortion-rights crowd are more likely to fall into category 1.
This immediately raises an interesting question, though. When one examines the two explanations, one sees that they seem to be based on opposite frames of mind: I disbelieve in any morality, so I’m going to flee poo. I believe in my system of morality so strongly that I feel justified in flinging poo. Of course, there is no contradiction so long as you assume that the poo-flingers can be classified into two groups, and it’s tempting to identify the first category of poo-flinger with Democrats and the second category of poo-flingers with Republicans. But this does not bear up under scrutiny of the actual poo-flingers. While Republicans can certainly be nasty at times, and Democrats can certainly be civil, it is my observation that the two are not equally culpable in this battle of incivility. Democrats are much worse. If that has you frothing at the mouth, you’d best go rinse your palate with a couple of nice postings from BCC or T&S; if you can believe the Republicans are just as bad as the Democrats, in the face of what I consider massive empirical evidence to the contrary, nothing I say here is likely to change your mind. It remains the case that we have two major parties in this country, the Stupid Party and the Evil Party, and it’s pretty clear to me which is which.
(And the stupid in the Stupid Party is not in the philosophy articulated by its leading intellectual lights. It’s in the disconnect between what is articulated by its leading intellectual lights and the revealed preferences of the party base and the lack of political skill of the party. That’s a topic for a different post, probably by His Majesty. Suffice to say that there are perfectly understandable reasons why a correct and enlightened social philosophy may be a very hard political sell. A G.K. Chesterton quote comes to mind.*)
But it is not necessary even to insist that the two groups are disjoint. Humans being what they are, it is perfect possible for a person to reject the concept of a moral system while simultaneously believing in his moral system so deeply that he will do anything to defend it. It’s not logical, but it is very human.
This may seem like a sudden change of subject, but it really isn’t: Some time ago, I asked my local library to arrange an interlibrary loan of John Fabian Witt’s Lincoln’s Code. This fine book won the Bancroft Award, the most prestigious award for a work on American history, which remains a signal honor in spite of the aberration of Michael Bellesiles and Arming America. Perhaps I should not be surprised that my library declined to make the interlibrary loan, and instead purchased its own copy. Lincoln’s Code is the finest sort of nonfiction book: I have some guesses at the author’s political preferences, which I strongly suspect are different from mine, but he does a remarkably good job of not injecting these into his writings. The book itself discusses the development of international humanitarian law (meaning, mostly, the law of armed conflict) over the course of American history. It challenged my thinking, but in positive ways. I recommend it highly.
One of the most interesting developments in international humanitarian law was the development of the theory of just war. Just war theory went back at least to the Romans, but prior to the 17th century, it was believed that since only one side could be in the right, only one side in a war could be fighting a just war; obviously, this was your own side; ergo, the combatants on the other side were fighting an unjust war; ergo, they were murderers. You could summarily execute them on capture, or (if you were feeling merciful) you could enslave them instead. Yes: Slavery was originally a form of mercy. History is full of little twists like that.
This changed in the 17th century with the work of the great Dutch jurist Grotius, who got to thinking: You know, we’re all imperfect humans. We could conceivably be mistaken about which side is in the right in a war. Perhaps it would be better to assume that everyone is fighting in good faith, so to speak, and when we capture an enemy combatant, who after all is no longer a danger to us, maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt and cut him some slack. Somehow this idea caught on, and was extended: If we can cut some slack to prisoners of war, maybe we can be better about taking prisoners to begin with. So to a prohibition on mistreating prisoners of war was added a rule that you should not refuse to give quarter. And so on. Pretty soon war was in real danger of becoming a gentlemanly sport to which civilians could bring their lawn chairs and favorite beverages to sit and watch the fun. War at the time of the American Revolution came about as close to this ideal as it ever has, excepting of course “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”. Indians weren’t gentlemen.**
It all started falling apart during the Civil War, and very nearly came apart completely during the Second World War. The strains on the system of international humanitarian law during the Civil War reflect, I think, two things: First, it is the nature of civil wars to be vicious.*** Second, and notwithstanding the occasional crap**** spouted by Southern apologists, slavery was the big issue in the war, and nowhere was this more evident than in the collision between international humanitarian law and slavery. This is, in fact, one of the major themes of Witt’s book. Slavery was an issue on which the leading intellectual lights on both sides were deeply convinced of the rightness of their position.
During the Second World War, the situation was a bit different. Hitler was a moral nihilist. So was Mussolini. Japanese culture had had a broad streak of nihilism in it from time immemorial.***** All this was reflected in the way the war was fought, particularly in the East (both the Far East and eastern Europe.)
During the Civil War, the humanitarian law of warfare was severely tested because both sides were so utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause. During the Second World War, the humanitarian law of warfare was severely tested because one side and half of the other side****** were moral nihilists, and the other half of the other side were (with considerable reason) utterly convinced of the moral rightness of their cause.
By now you can see that my tangent isn’t a tangent at all. If you view politics as war by other means, then Gordon B. Hinckley essayed to be the new Grotius, calling on the modern political warrior to recognize that, if his enemy cannot be in the right, then perhaps the warrior should recognize than his enemy may be a bit shy of being completely in the wrong. Humility about oneself and one’s understanding of the real nature of things is incompatible with a take-no-prisoners approach to politics.
But then, calls for civility have a tendency to be seized on as confessions of weakness.
* Disclaimer: Any resemblance between G.K. Chesterton and His Majesty is purely coincidental.
** There is, of course, a great deal more that can be said on this topic, both in condemnation of Indian behavior in wartime and in condemnation of the European response to it, and with due acknowledgement of the peculiar status of the “civilized tribes.” This is beyond our present scope.
*** I once spent some time in the American South, and discovered that many Southerners insist on calling the recent late unpleasantness the War Between the States, on the eminently sensible grounds that there wasn’t anything civil about it.
**** “Crap” is not too strong a word for it. And this started out, after all, as a post about poo-flingers.
***** Multiculturalism is crap, too.
****** Do I have to spell it out? I guess I’m just stallin’ for time.