Incivility Now!

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

A virtue of a thing, according to Aristotle, is that which makes it perform its function well.  Sharpness is a virtue of a knife; civility is a virtue of liberal democracy.

Our liberal democracy, like similar regimes nowadays in other capitalist countries around the world, is not particularly democratic.

“Democracy” means rule of the people, the demos, as distinct from elites of one or another kind.  In the United States and elsewhere, the word “democracy” long ago lost this class-specific connotation.   In self-described democratic countries, the undifferentiated citizenry, the people as a whole, rule — in theory.  This is not what the word meant in Greek antiquity, but it is close enough.

Or it would be if theory and practice were more in line.  In practice, the rulers in self-described democracies are economic elites – usually not directly, but through a political class that serves their interests.  The United States is no exception; by no stretch of the imagination is ours a government of, by, and for the people.

However, like the others, the United States does fill some, by no means all, top political offices through nominally free and fair competitive elections.   This is its main, arguably its only, genuinely democratic feature.

Much has been written and said about “American exceptionalism.” The implication is that we are better than other countries, and therefore, presumably, more liberal and more democratic.  In fact, in at least one respect, we are worse.  Our liberal democracy is “exceptional” for being less democratic.

Thanks to our semi-established and deeply entrenched duopoly party system and the norms, practices, and laws it sustains, American elections are generally less competitive than elections elsewhere.  Nevertheless, they are competitive enough, for most Americans, to establish and maintain democratic legitimacy, thereby keeping the demos acquiescent and capitalism secure.

Liberal democracies have always been more liberal than democratic.  In this respect, the United States is unexceptional.   Our laws and institutions do a fairly good job of securing basic rights and liberties. The United States used to be admired around the world for this.  Recovering and then expanding upon what has recently been lost would be an eminently worthwhile way to “make America great again.”

It was quite an achievement. Even with Donald Trump in the White House and a large and growing gaggle of rightwing judges hell-bent on reversing a hundred or more years of progress “infesting,” the judicial system, basic rights and liberties, though compromised and endangered, are still largely intact.

Apologies to Trump and fascists everywhere for appropriating their infestation metaphor; it begs to be turned against them.

“The price of liberty” is said to be “eternal vigilance.”  Despite the robustness of our institutions, the 2016 election has put liberty in great jeopardy.

Because the time is coming, if it is not already here, when Americans can no longer rely on the courts for protection from bad leaders and bad laws, the need for vigilance will only intensify in the years ahead, whatever happens in our nominally free and fair elections this year and in 2020.

The Right has been packing the courts with judges who think like them at least since the Reagan era. Since Trump assumed office – thanks to the Electoral College, not the popular vote – the process has gained steam. Federal judgeships are lifetime appointments, after all.  With the toll mounting, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of going in for the kill.

Unless an outraged citizenry is able to stop them in their tracks, liberal democracy in America could succumb.  With Trumpian judges and servile legislators leading the way, it would not be replaced by anything more humane or democratic, but by an illiberal and authoritarian regime that will make what we now have look almost good.

The longer the GOP controls the Senate and House, the chances that we will indeed be going from bad to worse improve.

In the short run, with the villainous Mitch McConnell leading the charge, Republican Senators will consent to the installation of yet more rightwing miscreants on the Supreme Court and in the appellate divisions; and rightwing trial judges will increasingly “infest” federal trial courts.   They will be there, working their mischief, for generations to come.

Stopping McConnell and the others would be easier were the less odious duopoly party to cast its inveterate spinelessness aside, becoming as obdurate and uncivil as its rival.  In the conditions that now obtain, the high road leads nowhere — notwithstanding the pious utterances of liberal politicians and their media flacks.

Democrats have lately taken to claiming that their backbones are stiffening.  How believable is that?  Backing down is what Democrats do.

But even with them leading what they shamelessly call a “resistance,” the United States will probably remain a flawed but basically undamaged liberal democracy for a while longer.  For that, we have mainly inertia to thank.

Even so, in the face of Trump’s malevolence, and in the turbulent conditions brought on by his and his minions’ thoughtlessness, recklessness, and incompetence, does it still make sense to think of civility as a virtue of the regime?

The question arises because anger towards Trump and his minions has lately been spilling over into restaurants and in front of apartment buildings and town houses.

In fact, the incidents we have lately heard so much about have little to do with the kinds of civility that make liberal democracies work well.  Nevertheless, they have precipitated discussions of civility in recent news cycles and therefore might as well be conceptually on point.

Still, it must be said that compared to what Trump and his supporters do, the offending “incivilities” are comically trite.

Trump’s principal media flack, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked politely to leave a restaurant; his Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, an architect and administrator of Trump’s morally abominable child separation policy was heckled while dining in, of all places, a tony Mexican eatery in DC; in another Washington restaurant, a ridiculously polite teacher from an elite Washington private school, carrying her baby, confronted the hyper noxious and flagrantly corrupt Scott Pruitt, the man Trump put in charge of rolling back environmental regulations and overseeing the despoliation of the environment; and there was a demonstration outside Steven Miller’s apartment.  With Steve Bannon more or less out of the picture, that terminally creepy thirty-something has become Trump’s go-to fascisantideologue.

These “assaults” on liberal norms have more to do with the exercise of political speech than intolerance. The only arguably defensible codes of conduct they violate are those that underwrite the existence of neutral zones where wicked and depraved illiberal malefactors can feel comfortable living it up.

But with civility having become Topic A, this is not a time to be conceptually fastidious.  Interest in that “debate” will wax and wane as Trump’s antics and the exigencies of what passes for journalism in corporate circles cause the news cycle to flit about from one thing to another.  But, more than anything else in the news nowadays – more even than the odor of corruption that engulfs all things Trumpian — the topic has legs.


In the late sixties and early seventies, there was a debate about freedom of thought and expression that, in many ways, parallels the debate taking place today.

The liberal view, at its most extreme, was that, with exceptions for speech that poses a clear and present danger (yelling “fire” in crowded theater is a textbook example) and perhaps also for speech that is libelous, there should be no restrictions on content whatsoever.

In On Liberty(1859), John Stuart Mill argued that the more diverse speech there is, the better; a century later, many liberals agreed with him.  On this view, even speech that is noxious or offensive is socially useful because “the lively collision” of truth with falsehood aids in the discovery of new truths and impedes lapses into dogmatism.  Engaging bad speech also enhances consumer competence in what has come to be called “the marketplace of ideas.”

Nowadays, most liberals endorse a slightly different view: that while little or no good comes from “bad speech,” the most effective remedy for it is more speech, speech that promotes better views; suppression is wasted effort.

Strictly speaking, these and similar arguments pertain to relations between individuals and the state; they address what political authorities may rightfully do.   However, the arguments naturally carry over to relations between private citizens and, as must be added in these Trumpian times, documented and undocumented “aliens.”

They therefore converge on notions of civility. What, after all, could be more uncivil than heckling a speaker off a stage?  For a while in the sixties, radical students did a lot of heckling – sparking the debate that then ensued.

Nowadays, with unreconstructed Tea Partiers in Congress banding together into a “freedom caucus,” and with quasi-fascists provoking attacks on vulnerable communities in the name of “free speech,” it has become harder than it used to be to call things for what they are.  Orwellian misappropriations of words have that effect.

It is therefore worth recalling that battles for racial justice in the United States – from the Abolitionist period, through the civil rights and black liberation struggles — were waged for freedom’s sake; and also that the (largely white) student movement which became the cornerstone of “the sixties” was effectively launched in 1964 by the aptly named Free Speech movement at the University of California in Berkeley.

In much the way that nearly everyone now piously defends civility (usually without giving much thought to what that involves), support for free speech (again, largely under-described) was a universal point of consensus half a century ago.

But then came desperate times, and patience wore thin.  Freedom, rightly understood, remained elusive, and the ever more horrific Vietnam War dragged on.  As is the case now with Trump, when things seemed like they could not possibly get worse, they did.

Then, as now, for anyone with a progressive bone in his or her body, the daily news was rage inducing.

It was therefore tempting, when racists and warmongers would speak on campuses, for students and others to cast prevailing understandings of what free speech involves aside.

This was not just acting out.  In student milieus especially, a spontaneous philosophical response with practical political implications took hold as the thought dawned that tolerance – and civility, its close cousin – might in some cases actually be part of the problem.

Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” elaborated on that insight.  In New Left circles, Marcuse was, for a while, perhaps the most widely read and celebrated academic in the United States and around the world.  He became the patron philosopher of politicized students and hippies and other tuned in, dropped out, countercultural Luftmenschen, everywhere.

Marcuse’s core idea was that “pure” tolerance, tolerance regardless of content, had “turned into its opposite”; that, in practice, it suppressed dissent, therefore impeding progressive change.

His arguments – sometimes obscure, sometimes dated (from a contemporary vantage-point), and sometimes still spot on insightful – mattered less than the implication his readers drew from them: that, to get the marketplace of ideas back on track as an instrument of human liberation, it could be useful sometimes to act outrageously – say, by disrupting speakers or, more generally, by being uncivil or even offensive.

Marcuse’s position can seem bizarre to persons comfortable with liberal norms.  It shouldn’t, however; it is structurally similar to the way that most liberals, indeed most people (pacifists excepted), view recourses to violence.

In an ideal world, most non-pacifists would proscribe violence categorically.  However, in the actual world, they almost without exception believe that there are circumstances in which recourses to violence are not only justified, but also conducive to moving the world closer to an ideal state.

Similarly, the Marcuse of “Repressive Tolerance” held that in an ideal world, all views, regardless of content, should be welcomed into the marketplace of ideas.  But, the argument goes, the actual world is enough unlike the ideal that, from time to time, judicious recourses to intolerance are not only justified but also instrumental for making the marketplace of ideas work more like it would were conditions closer to the ideal.

That position had many adherents in radical circles – for a while.

Before long, however, students and others who were drawn to such views intuitively, along with brainier types who found Marcuse’s arguments persuasive, realized that when speakers are disrupted, the public’s attention turns towards the disruption itself, not the issues the disruptions were supposed to address

Thus the case for “pure tolerance” took a more pragmatic than principled turn.  The disruptions did not stop because potential disruptors were persuaded that they were philosophically indefensible.  They stopped in part because the public mood had changed, but also because the consensus view came to be that the tactic was counter-productive.

It doesn’t have to be, of course; but in circumstances in which liberal tolerance and civility are held in high regard in all sectors of the population, violating norms by transgressing the boundaries of civility cedes the high ground to the other side.

The situation today is different.  The immediate problem is Trump-made; it is, in fact, Trump’s boorish incivility and gangster-like demeanor that has brought it into being.  There is no chance on earth that Trump, or the people around him, will ever occupy any high ground.

By no matter what standard they are judged, the incivilities of those who oppose Trump and Trumpians are piddling compared to those of Trump himself.  He has even taken to issuing mafia-style threats – as when he calls Congresswoman Maxine Waters “a low IQ person” and tweeted that “Max” had better “be careful” what she wishes for.

We are told repeatedly that Michael Cohen isn’t the only person out there who would “take a bullet” for Trump; that tens of millions of Americans would as well.  Perhaps.  But, as with Cohen, when the situation turns sour, all bets are off.

In Cohen’s case, this is happening before our eyes.  When the economy breaks, as it likely soon will, all but the most psychopathic Trumpians will either join him or be forced to concede that they no longer have the sense they were born with.

It won’t help the Donald that even in the darkest recesses of the Trump base, it is bound to become clear eventually that Trump’s effect on the economy is overwhelmingly detrimental; that his tax cuts for the rich (with crumbs for many others) along with the austerity policies that accompany them, his trade war inducing tariffs, and his turn against the feeble financial regulations put in place by the Obama administration in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis will exacerbate America’s economic problems many times over.

Even now, outside that seeming unmovable, but actually quite fickle “base” of his, Trump is so widely and correctly perceived to be a clear and present danger that acts of defiance, the more militant the better, are welcomed by many, probably most, Americans.

Defenders of pure liberal tolerance deserve and receive respect in much the way that pacifists do; nearly everyone would agree that even if they are wrong, the position they uphold is admirable.  Nothing Trump does is admirable; he and the people around him are utterly unworthy of respect.  Many of his fans understand this too, though they somehow manage not to care.

Liberal proponents of civility might want to argue that the office Trump occupies deserves respect even so.   For the sake of argument, let’s concede that they have a point.  Still, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 indicates maximum disrespect for the office of president and 1 indicates no disrespect at all, the most egregiously uncivil anti-Trump demonstrators would score a 2 or perhaps a 3. The only reason that Trump wouldn’t score above 10 is that the scale goes no higher.

This is why the “pragmatic” case against disrupting speech, however compelling it may have been fifty years ago, does not have much force now – especially when applied to the pitifully tame incivilities to which Trump’s associates have been subjected.  Times have changed.

In “the sixties,” there were questions raised, from within a broadly liberal perspective, about whether to disrupt speakers in classrooms or at public events.  There were not many questions raised about whose speeches merited disruption; that was obvious.  This is less clear now, partly because, back then, it was ideas that mattered most of all; the aim was to open up and energize the marketplace of ideas.  Nowadays, bad ideas count for less than bad deeds and bad character.

It is not even a question of speaking truth to power, but rather to sheer, unadulterated wickedness.  Wickedness exists in abundance in the Trump world.

To be sure, Trump has no ideas to speak of, except insofar as he latches on to a few that he hears about on Fox News or that some of the most nefarious members of “the donor class” supply him.   What he has instead is a thoroughly opportunistic determination to pander to constituencies whose nativist, white supremacist, and outright racist ideas are not worth taking seriously in their own right.  For a long time, those constituencies have been welcomed into the Republican Party; with Trump in the White House they own it lock, stock, and barrel.

But Democrats are awful too.  Republicans are worse, but it would be entirely fair to call for “a plague on both … [their] houses.”

Democrats – or even pre-Trump Republicans — would probably not tear babies and toddlers away from their parents, but on more general questions of immigration policy, they differ from Republicans only by degree.

The Deporter-in-Chief was a Democrat, a “liberal” one by most accounts, and they still back him one thousand percent.  With a “resistance” like that, who needs Trump?

The short answer is: nobody.

But it would make no sense, at this point, to target Democrats and Republicans alike.  Without the former, the chances of undoing the latter would be even worse than they now are.

The sad truth is that there is no fair way to shame all deserving malefactors; there are too many of them – there isn’t world enough and time.  Also they are hard to pick out in public; many of the worst of them go through life incognito.

It could hardly be otherwise; Washington, which, as the saying goes, is a Hollywood for ugly people.  Hollywood is full of faces well known to the general public; Washington is full of people with names known only to policy wonks and political junkies, and, with few exceptions, even they couldn’t pick most of the truly heinous ones out of a lineup.

The Supreme Court is much in the news these days. Put those Justices in street clothes and even most of them could go out unnoticed almost anywhere.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an exception and maybe also John Roberts.  But, despite all the talk about his retirement, even Anthony Kennedy, stripped of his judicial robes, could probably fade in unnoticed any well-heeled country club in the land.

It is the same with cabinet officers and most Congressmen and Senators.  Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are exceptions; they are in the news too much not to be identifiable.  The same goes for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the architect of the Republican takeover of the Supreme Court.  McConnell in particular would stand out in any crowd because there aren’t many other human-toad hybrids around.

For the most part, though, the only generally recognizable Trumpians are the ones who put themselves forward either because it is in their job description – Sarah Huckabee Sanders and, before her, Sean Spicer, for example – or because, like Steven Miller, they are so grotesque that seen once they haunt the mind forever.

For most Trumpians, therefore, laissez-vivre is the default position.  For better or worse, it is likely to remain so.

Therefore, there are limits to how much can be achieved through public shaming.  It is worth doing when apt occasions arise, but nothing much is likely to come from it.


The major battles this fall are likely to be over immigration and now, with the fate of the Supreme Court at stake, abortion.

There is no reason, in either case, to be even modestly decorous.  If anodyne incivilities or even militant displays of disdain discomfit Trump’s minions, his family, and the Donald himself, then so much the better. As long as Trump et. al. are able to avoid expulsion, we should at least do all we can to humiliate and hobble each and every one of them.

It is therefore fair game to point out that, on immigration, the battle to keep dangerous riff raff out was lost a long time ago.  A country that truly wanted to save itself from “infestation” would have prevented a certain Bavarian barber turned Klondike gold explorer (viva Canada!) and part time whoremonger from ever setting up stakes here south of the border.

The mindlessness, venality, and pathological egotism of his best-known descendant has done more to make America a Laughing Stock – not again, but as never before – than a dozen MS-13s possibly could.

On abortion, however, the battle to keep the judiciary from falling completely into Trumpian hands is still not lost.  However, that will happen soon enough if there isn’t massive fight back – unremitting pressure, massive demonstrations, and civil disobedience.

Were some elected Democratic legislators to be arrested for the cause, along with masse of other, it would at least show that the party of Pelosi and Schumer is not an entirely lost cause.

Three Democrats, Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia) voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch.  This time, if the party leadership does not keep them in line, it will be up to “we, the people” to hold those leaders and those rightwing Democratic Senators to account.

If that means tearing the Democratic Party apart, as corporate pundits keep saying, then so be it; were our political scene slightly more (small-d) democratic, the party would not survive for long in any case.

Such talk gives Clintonite liberals, and the media personalities who articulate their views, hissy fits, but the fact remains: that without extreme militancy, Roe v. Wade will soon be overturned – if not expressly then for all practical purposes.

This may happen in any case, the will of the people notwithstanding.  That is how undemocratic our liberal democracy is.

It is better, though, to go down fighting than to acquiesce to reaction for civility’s sake.

If enough women and men come to that conclusion, enough to make common cause with uncivil “socialists” and others intent on bringing the war back home, there just might be a chance, even now, to save the day.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).