We Can Disagree, But Let’s Do So Civilly

These are remarks made by Cliff Hyra, Libertarian Party candidate in the recent gubernatorial election, on the need for civil discourse in Virginia and the United States at the Big Bacon Fry two weeks ago. I’ll have more to say in future posts about the excellent discussion we had there and initiatives that could arise from it. — JAB.

Politics has changed. Americans have become more extreme in their positions, have much more negative views of people who disagree with them, and are less willing to compromise. About one third of Democrats and Republicans now see the other party not just in an unfavorable light, but as a fundamental threat to the nation’s well-being. Our relationships and methods of communication are changing, with the Internet replacing face-to-face communication and allowing us to choose our own sources of information and our peers.

In turn, the idea of civility in politics seems to have slowly gone by the wayside. Open hostility and demonization are common-place. Violence regularly erupts at political rallies. The differences between Republicans and Democrats, not just in politics but in daily life, are increasing dramatically. If the trend continues, rising political violence seems all too possible. Yet there seem to be no incentives favoring a return to civility. Is there anything we can do to help turn things around?

When I first decided to run for Governor of Virginia, I chose to make respect a central tenet of my campaign. That was not so much a strategic decision for me, as simply something that was very important to me personally.  Respect for others — even, and especially, people who I disagree with and think are making the wrong choices — is the basis for my political philosophy and a guiding principal for my personal behavior. And as a third party guy, I don’t have luxury of being able to create bubble of like-minded folks and demonize everyone outside of it, or I would be living in a very small bubble indeed.

For me, recent changes in political discourse have been a huge personal loss. As someone with an interest in policy who cares mostly about results and not partisanship, I find it increasingly difficult to talk to anyone about anything. I sometimes feel accosted on all sides by extremist political rhetoric. In my campaign, I did not view the other candidates as adversaries, but as collaborators in the political process, by which Virginians try to discover and arrive at the best policy solutions for the future. Meanwhile, I can hardly stand to log into Facebook because of the bitterness and contempt being exhibited there.

One of the things that was interesting to me was the stark dichotomy between what I saw online, and what I experienced on the campaign trail, face-to-face with voters. I fully expected strident polemics and harsh criticism, and on the Internet I received it in spades. But person-to-person, interactions were much more civil, much more enjoyable, much more cooperative. Even those who strongly disagreed with me were able to be polite and have a reasoned conversation.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was, not just to talk to supporters, but to journalists and to everyday people on the street. It was a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to see places in Virginia I had never seen before, to meet people with lives different from my own and learn about them and make a connection. Humans are evolved to cooperate with each other in person, where the costs and benefits of our interactions are immediate and unavoidable. In person, people were willing to make concessions and consider new ideas, and many expressed a strong distaste for the tone of modern politics. It makes me wonder how much of the lack of civility is directly attributable to the rise of the Internet as a means of communication. So, I don’t think that people have changed for the worse in some fundamental way, and that gives me hope that things can improve.

And things need to improve, if we are going to avoid further political violence, let alone address some of the challenges we face today that require collaboration, cooperation, and compromise. But politicians and political parties are fundamentally unsuited to change themselves. Politicians and political parties will inherently, over time, come to be dominated by whatever strategies are effective in winning elections. And we know that the electorate as a whole has become very highly polarized, and even more so among those most likely to vote and make political donations, among whom the number of extreme liberals has quintupled over the last twenty years, and the number of extreme conservatives has tripled over the last ten years.

And now we see the result of that change, as even staid, relatively mainstream candidates like Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie resort to accusing each other of sympathy for MS-13, pedophiles, white nationalists and neo-Nazis. As a candidate, I tried to set an example of civility and respect. And I encouraged the voters to hold the candidates accountable for their rhetoric, and to vote strategically against the lack of civility and disrespect in modern politics.

I think if there is going to be change, it needs to be a non-partisan approach that goes beyond any immediate political campaign or political battle. So I thank Jim for bringing us together and for stepping up and making an effort to change things, because that is exactly what we need. And I am grateful to be involved, and eager to do what I can to help. And I hope some of you here are as well. That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for having me.

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11 responses to “We Can Disagree, But Let’s Do So Civilly

  1. Thank you, Cliff — thank you for saying so. If only the majority would reach similar conclusions and act on similar impulses next November. The deterioration of our nation’s political center should scare us all.

  2. Cliff’s sentiments are noble. So is his apparent conduct worthy at times of emulation. The incoming president (James Ryan) of UVa’s new book “Wait, What” is a helpful guide on the way to trying to reach this level of conduct.

    But comments like “In my campaign, I did not view the other candidates as adversaries, but as collaborators in the political process, by which Virginians try to discover and arrive at the best policy solutions for the future,” however noble, need to be grounded in reality. As I recently learned on this blog, for every Abe Lincoln there must be a John Brown. Nor was Abe a saint. There is a season, a time, and place for many tasks, each quite different one from the other, but critical to the success of all. We live in a fallen world. Evil must be named. And confronted, and dealt with. Otherwise civility cannot live to work its magic or even have a chance.

    There is a fine article on this subject: The Haunted Mr. Hawthorne, by M. D. Aeschliman first published in 1993 by First Things Magazine. Here I greatly edit and paraphrase. The original referenced below is well worth the read.

    “When Jefferson and Jackson defeated the Adamses of a more conservative and traditional character and cast of mind, they did so partly by offering a more radical independence of self and national identity that was later found in the life and work of Emerson and his disciples from Walt Whitman to Henry Miller and Norman Mailer whose a self reliance had worked out of the “right of expatriation from the past.”

    No spirit was more antithetical to this program than Nathaniel Hawthorne. Obsessed with the human past, collective and familial, he was haunted by its virtues and its vices, its glories and degradations. His legacy was honor and shame. Of his kin, first settlers of Salem, Hawthorne wrote, were “stalwart” men who strode “sturdily onward,” brave and pious men of “thoughtful strength,” men “who do not merely find, but make their place in the system of human affairs.” while also often authoritarian and self-righteous sinners, displacing Indians, trying and executing “witches,” persecuting and whipping dissenters, such as Baptists and Quakers.

    So, despite the fact the Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in a later, liberal age that was declaring its independence from and its superiority to the past and progressive confidence in its glowing future, he was unable to persuade himself that human nature collectively improves over historical time. No, in his expansive, optimistic, self-congratulatory age, Hawthorne was an ironic dissenter who saw sin, evil, and tragedy as perennial human phenomena to be reduced, mitigated, or overcome—if at all—by individual moral and religious effort. And by what Burke called the moral imagination.

    Hawthorne’s lifelong mentors were the great Puritan moralist-seers Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan, and the 18th century writers, the great Augustan Christian humanists, especially Dr. Johnson who unlike his friend Burke was a notorious critic of the idealistic claims to virtue and progress of the American founders and their Declaration of Independence, asking as Samuel Johnson did in 1775: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

    Sin was everywhere in Hawthorne’s time. “If the Puritans lashed Quakers and hung “witches,” the Southern gentlemen exploited, lashed, and hung recalcitrant negroes—as in a more subtle way the burgeoning commercial-industrial upper classes of the North exploited and abused the newly emergent industrial working classes of immigrants and poor whites, especially in the growing cities of the Northeast. The ugliness and hypocrisy of the new northeastern capitalism was brilliantly pointed out in Hawthorne’s time by the Southern writer George Fitzhugh, as C. Vann Woodward has shown …”

    And so when Emerson declared in May of 1861 from his comfortable Concord study that “he could never give much reality to evil and pain”, Hawthorne was incredulous and outraged. How could the sins and pains of the human race could be so airily dismissed at the dawn of the Civil War?

    No, Hawthorne disbelieved the 19th century’s secular, progressive optimism because it “preposterously miscalculated the possibilities” of human life. As the historian James Truslow Adams later wrote, Emerson and his followers articulated “that vast American optimism with its refusal to recognize and wrestle with the problem of evil.” Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass had no such luxury.”

    There are limits to civility. And times for something quite different.

    See: https://www.firstthings.com/article/1993/01/the-haunted-mr-hawthorne

  3. Political “compromise” used to be done by leaders , statesmen on behalf of citizens… Citizens themselves usually were not involved , often clueless as to what compromises were actually being made.

    All of that has changed with the information age. Open and widespread dialogue – now is the standard – and as people become better “informed” they DO HAVE opinions of their own .. that align with their own personal philosophical leanings.

    The downside is that anyone can generate information – and once it is “published” it can go like wildfire across like-minded sites who like it – whether it is actually true or not.

    So now – virtually every Tom, Dick and Harry is subjected to all manner of conspiracy theories – and the “truth” is basically determined by how many people like or dislike the assertion.

    Used to be – they’d take these polls showing how many people could not identify a Country when shown it’s Geographic Boundaries. Now… we have that with all manner of issues – people don’t know but there are a plethora of others who will tell them the “answer”. Whether that answer is factual or not is an additional dispute….

    Basically now days, it’s up to the individual to find out the facts for themselves and not rely on others who purport to be arbiters of the truth.

    It really is a different world – so much information.. both fact and fiction in a firehose… of the internet.

  4. If someone walked up to you on the street, pointer a gun at your face and demanded your wallet – what would you do? Hopefully, you’d hand over your wallet and hope for the best. A day later, a week later, a month later, a year later – would you think, “I need to be civil to the thief who robbed me?” Probably not. So, why would I be civil toward the politicians in Virginia? They give away $12.5B per year in industry and company specific tax breaks to their friends. We all end up paying more in personal taxes to support this asinine giveaway. They mollycoddle Dominion (allowing them to overcharge us) in return for gifts and campaign contributions. We all pay more. They insist that cars always be bought form dealers, wine be sold by distributors, liquor be sold by the state. We all pay more. They illegally gerrymander political districts, hold off year elections and make it almost impossible to get on the ballot unless you’re one of them. This keeps the thieves in office.

    Civility toward thieves? I think not.

  5. Civility towards politicians!

    Now THAT’s CONCEPT in today’s world!

    Since the advent of “perfectly legal” big money – free speech they call it – in politics – many folks are of the opinion that the big money “free speech” trumps the voters free speech.

    Also going on – people have lost faith in many of our public institutions.

    finally -the internet .. has given each one of us a megaphone.. so if someone is disaffected, we know it.. if a group is disaffected we REALLY KNOW IT!

    Our politics now reflect this and I’m not sure if we can get back to a “can’t we all get along” time and place..

    On the up side – people DO care.. strong feelings.. these days… and compromise is seen as abandonment of one’s principles… and unfortunately fed by a lot of disinformation…

    you’d think with the internet – we’d reach the pinnacle of “informed people” but no.. “information” may or may not be factual or the truth – all of it gets pushed out onto the internet – and consumed… and those that consume it . many actively participate.. the “silent generation” HA!

  6. The arrival and wide-scale acceptance and use of the Internet has, IMO, blurred the differences between media and other companies and, indeed, the general public. BR would be impossible in a pre-Internet age. And while BR doesn’t get the readership of some other blogs, it certainly is not an unknown in Virginia.

    When I was a kid, I read the St Paul morning and evening newspapers and listened or watched broadcast news. The media played a different role than other corporations. There were good reasons for the media to have special treatment under the First Amendment.

    Today, I don’t read the Washington newspapers to the extent I used to read papers in St. Paul, Omaha, Des Moines and Washington, D.C. I still listen to news and watch it on TV, but generally I get most of my news from Internet sites and web links. For example, I view the WTOP website more than I listen to its broadcast. I use many more sources of news than I used to, but spend less time on each source than I used to spend on a limited number of sources.

    Some of my sources are traditional media companies, albeit in an online format. But some are “original sources,” i.e., a company, nonprofit, government agency or even an individual. I am no longer limited to read about what the WaPo or WJLA tell me about a Fairfax County land use decision. I can read what Fairfax County itself says. And I can likely obtain copies of the developer’s application and related statements as well as comments of other interest parties, pro and con.

    I would never argue that the WaPo or WJLA should no longer have First Amendment rights. But they are no longer completely different from many other entities. There rights, therefore, should not be above those of other entities trying to inform the public.

    For example, the WaPo is likely to write over and over again about the need for WMATA to have dedicated funding or that Ralph Northam would be a better Governor than Ed Gillespie. And it can spend as much money doing this as its management deems appropriate.

    But so should any other corporation, nonprofit, etc., be able to spend money to promote or oppose Northam or Gillespie. Ditto for or against dedicated funding for WMATA.

  7. The thing is unfortunately, we as political human beings love to hate others as the “enemy” for perceived damage to our personal vision of society. We must have a scapegoat to blame and loathe.

    In her book Drift, Rachel Maddow talks about how the Democrats observed Ronald Reagan become president, basically by vilifying Panama/Independence. Now, one of the best ways to get votes is by identifying scapegoats for people to direct their hatred towards.

    At least give Ronald Reagan credit for not vilifying his fellow Americans. Now we have done just that, and I am afraid neither side can tolerate the despicable pond scum on the other side.

    Why should we tolerate ugly Americans guilty of crimes against humanity? We should not, doing so would violate our civic duty. We must ask the world to join is projecting intense hatred to those Americans we see as deplorable. This is where we are.

    • Rachael Maddow was 7 years old when Ronald Reagan was first inaugurated as president. It sounds like she might have written her book contemporaneously with Reagan’s first inauguration. She thinks Reagan was elected because of Carter’s giveaway of the Canal Zone? If that weren’t so ridiculous it might be funny.

      Gas shortages and lines for gas due to the OPEC embargo, recession, stagflation, the Iranian hostage situation, the botched rescue attempt in the desert … Jimmy Carter managed to pack more malaise into his four short years as president than most presidents could manage if they served four terms. This is a president who countered the Russian invasion of Afghanistan by boycotting the olympics and taught the Iranian kidnappers a lesson by turning out the lights on the White House Christmas tree. He claimed that a rabbit tried to attack him while he was in a canoe and blushed beet red as he admitted he had lusted after women other than his wife in his heart.

      America had Mr Rogers as its president.

      In fairness, Carter was a very fine man with great integrity but he sure wasn’t much of a president.

      Regan didn’t just beat Carter, he trounced him. A margin of more than 10% of the popular vote and 489 to 49 in the electoral college. Remember, this was a sitting president.

      Panama was all but irrelevant in the 1980 election.

      Rachael Maddow, of course, knows better. I guess she couldn’t think of much bad to say about President Reagan so she played the truly bizarre Panama card.

      • DJR- I thought you were going to ask how to fix this problem. Well I hope I did not misrepresent what Maddow had said in her book. Let’s just say it was my interpretation of what she said. Don’t forget though Maddow was not just talking about how Reagan beat Carter, but how Reagan successfully got his candidacy moving to the forefront to beat his Repub rivals in the preceding years.

        Overall, Maddow was talking about how the U.S. military transformed itself from what we now might call “Deplorables” (disrespect during the Vietnam war era) to a bipartisan-supported and celebrated institution in America. I find myself wondering how my deplorable cohort (chemists and chemical engineers) could turn around public opinion from being against us. But the military has some tools (eg; no more forced draft) the rest of us do not have.

  8. A really interesting discussion for this Communication’s Master, and you all have raised good points … like the “firehose “ of internet information, civility toward thieves, the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ and the idea that our former newscasters were more fact based when they acted as gatekeepers of information.

    Marshall McLuan wrote in the 60’s that TV was changing the way our brains processed information. We now know that our perceptual processes operate differently in connection with emotion. What we hear has a much more direct emotional content than what we process through reading. That ‘firehose’ of information is often delivered over video, giving it to a higher emotional level, as well as with no reference to the information’s basis in fact. Add to that the fact that news is now a profit center, it was a loss leader prior to the proliferation of stations, and so ratings, driven by presenting controversy, and even rumor, tend to win the day.

    Hope for a change? The Andrea Mitchell Center for the study of Democracy hopes to promote the kind of discussion we would all like to see, discourse that can be both “partisan and independent minded”. The Center’s Director wants to see ‘lively and provocative conversation’ among students who come from different backgrounds and who hold different ideological positions but … and I think this is what we are missing today … the participants need to be “open to learning from others.” I see this ‘willing to learn from others’ as a different version of the ‘civility’ you want to see.

    Next year the Center will focus on “Democracy in Trouble.” We should keep posted.

    • Good post. I am thinking beyond TV, social media is now a further problem for America. We remain the same people we were in the stage coach days: we want to hear the “snake oil” sales pitch from the traveling salesman, and we very much want to have the choice to be manipulated by the snake oil sales pitch. This is a strictly American vulnerability, so we need to grasp the ramifications of it. We like to be manipulated emotionally, so just understanding we are being manipulated is not enough to solve the problem.

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