Alive and well is the bipartisan call for greater civility in our public discourse, which, we are told, is more divisive than ever. A 2019 Georgetown University poll found that 88 percent of Americans are worried that “the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians” was taking the country in a dangerous direction. In an effort to ameliorate these concerns, writers have taken to the opinion pages to offer guidance regarding the norms of public conduct. Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, writing for a local NPR affiliate in 2019, said,
What we need are Republicans who will raise their voices when Trump ridicules an opponent, whatever the issue at hand. You can’t proclaim your desire for a more decent style of discourse, then turn a deaf ear when your own president undermines it. By the same token, though, Democrats who want bipartisan unity are going to have to tone down some of the language they use against Donald J. Trump.
In an April 2019 USA Today column, Isadora Rangel writes, “Civility can only be achieved when we look at our behavior first. If the majority of us weren’t engaged on some level in uncivil behavior, then we wouldn’t have the issue in the first place.” This is what we are told: Listen to opposing viewpoints and empathize more. Turn down the temperature. Stop being so heated. Don’t be so tribal. Refrain from hurling insults. Look to compromise when you can.
Such aspirational thinking might lift up the soul and move us to sing patriotic hymns about a shared American identity, inspiring us to believe we have more in common than not. If only it were really that simple. Over the past few years, the greatest beneficiary of calls for civility has been not the progressive left but the reactionary right. Even though we may disagree with their extreme ideas, we’re told to consider all viewpoints.
Many liberals worry about internalizing the same uncivil hate that they see in their conservative opponents. So ideas hostile to equality are invited into the mainstream under the guise of civility and cloaked as tenable, even if controversial, positions. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, xenophobes, alt-righters, and anti-Semites aren’t just being tolerated. They are being invited into the public sphere: in op-eds, on cable news, and on television programs.
Weeks after Trump’s election in 2016, NPR correspondent Kelly McEvers talked to a leading voice of white supremacy—Richard Spencer. Spencer later became a key figure in organizing the racist march on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, where a white supremacist drove his car over and killed nonviolent anti-racist protester Heather Heyer. Pro-life groups like Students for Life of America and March for Life clamor for a seat at the annual Women’s March in Washington, positioning themselves as moral citizens who believe in the sanctity of life from “the womb to the tomb.”
Never Trumpers—such as former leading neoconservative intellectual Bill Kristol, chief architect of and continued apologist for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 during the George W. Bush presidency—chastise the erosion of democratic norms under Trump’s presidency. But they want to reclaim US hegemony across the globe and get tough with countries including Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Nativist anti-immigrant organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as having a “decades-long history of circulating racist writers, while also associating with white nationalists,” join the new bipartisan chorus calling for greater border security.We must loudly say that racism isn’t just an ugly belief but a system to be addressed with direct action and public policies.
Too often missing from this conversation is the fact that the issue of border security was manufactured by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and taken up by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, after the militarization of the US-Mexico border became a way to secure Democratic votes and to create new jobs for border patrol agents in a post-industrializing economy, in which factory work was harder to find.
Leaving far-right ideas uncontested means extreme demands will define what is practical. There might not be an actual concrete border wall along the US-Mexico border, but there is already more funding for border police, surveillance technology, and fencing. Maybe the US won’t have a complete shutdown of immigration—especially of Muslims—but there are already severe restrictions on refugee and migrant entry. There won’t be an elimination of tax on the super-rich, but neither has there been any increase in their taxes. The government might acknowledge the scientific fact of global warming, but they won’t reduce carbon emissions, on the grounds that the economy would be curtailed by the monetary cost.
Furthermore, as capitalism searches for ever-new markets in the name of robust growth and job creation, civility will continue to be a refrain used to undermine working people’s freedom. Even as the workforce becomes increasingly contingent, with few benefits or labor protections—in many large companies, such as Apple, Google, and Walmart, unionization is treated with disdain, and work is as deregulated as possible—corporations continue to talk about social responsibility and humanitarian concern. Start-ups fund human-interest programming on National Public Radio and create philanthropic wings to end malaria in Africa. Companies’ diversity initiatives, along with financial donations to Democratic candidates, assure us that they are part of the solution to racial prejudice, but they don’t raise wages for their workers.
The scions of Wall Street and the big oil profiteers are now interested in co-opting the message of environmentalists. They promise, as the conservative energy lobbying firm Clearpath puts it, to bring us “clean energy” through hydraulic fracking, thereby minimizing the reliance on traditional fossil fuels. Moreover, it’s wrong to believe corporations and political elites who tell us that technological changes (self-driving vehicles, advanced computer systems, algorithms) and a more flexible labor force (Uber drivers, part-time Amazon workers, and seasonal employees who can work multiple jobs and choose their own hours) will revolutionize society.
These changes benefit only capitalists and elected officials chasing not votes but money. And unless we overturn the system of profit-maximization and the political nihilism of our government representatives, these changes will simply allow for continued exploitation of the workforce. Challenging these conditions through the labor movement will be increasingly difficult after the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME (2018), in which a 5–4 conservative majority overruled almost forty-one years of precedent since Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which allowed unions to collect fees from all workers who benefitted from the contracts they negotiated. In Janus, the court said that required union dues—the lifeblood of a successful and vibrant organization—are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
Whatever the future holds, one thing that has been true historically is also true today: civility is deployed as democratic movements are ascending and reactionaries are on the ropes. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist elected to the House in 2018, is told to cease and desist in her talk of funding a Green New Deal by a 70 percent tax rate on the 1 percent. One GOP lawmaker, Utah Republican Rob Bishop, was so upset by Ocasio-Cortez’s plan that in March 2019 he hyperbolically described it as “tantamount to genocide” for rural America.6 Similarly, newly emboldened anti–political correctness liberals have found common ground with old-school misogynists arguing that the #MeToo movement, after only beginning to bring to the fore the way millions of women are sexually assaulted on a daily basis, has already led to “reverse sexism” and ruined the lives of many innocent men. The New York magazine writer Andrew Sullivan describes #MeToo in the following way: “Any presumption of innocence was regarded as a misogynist dodge . . . The righteous exposure of hideous abuse of power . . . morphed into a more generalized revolution against the patriarchy.”
Anti-racist protesters on college campuses are labeled as uncivil totalitarian anti-pluralist monsters wallowing in their privileged status as special snowflakes. All because they dare to protest when white nationalists are invited to give lectures for exorbitant fees paid through tuition dollars. The essayist Jonathan Chait described this student activism in April 2017 as part of the growing “illiberal left,” which “has used the fear of Donald Trump to goad broader elements of the progressive movement to adopt their repressive methods and slogans. The slogan ‘shut it down!’ has come into fashion on the left . . . The illiberal left has brought its notion that opposing views can and should be shut down into wide circulation.”
One might think that after years of seeing how feckless civility is as a political strategy, and how easily it is weaponized by the right, Democrats would abandon it once and for all. But this hasn’t been the case. Civility was the overarching message of the successful electoral campaign of Democratic President Joe Biden. Biden’s 2020 campaign slogan, “Restore the Soul of Our Nation,” was reaffirmed immediately upon assuming office in January 2021. In his inaugural address, Biden urged Americans to end our “uncivil war,” and promised a return to normalcy, by which he meant respecting his political opponents and working with members across the aisle for common sense reforms.
GOP Senators Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney and Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, were ecstatic. Biden’s inauguration speech, they said, was just what the “country needed,” especially in the wake of the January 6th storming of the US capital by pro-Trump insurrectionists who smashed windows and left a Capital police officer dead after soaking up Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen. The op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post breathed a collective sigh of relief, with the hope that a restoration of American values was finally, at long last, underway. Max Boot was thrilled by Biden’s “sanity,” and conventionality,” while the Financial Timesembraced the beginning of a “new era.”
Over the past few years, despite continued right-wing assaults on everything from the electoral process to global health in the wake of the COVID pandemic Democratic elites continue to lay blame on the activist left for their political failures. And succumb to wishful thinking that the right, as a minority party representing a dwindling minority of citizens, will find ways to achieve bipartisan compromise. After Republican Glenn Youngkin won a surprising victory in the Virginia Governor’s race in 2020—a solidly blue state for several election cycles—VA Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger warned the Biden that he was elected to be civil—to be “normal and stop the chaos,” and to not be “FDR”—which is to say, to back away from polarizing, potentially divisive policies, like the Build Back Better bill, or aggressive climate action.
Even those who are, ostensibly, more open to progressive policies believe that to win elections in 2022 and beyond, Democrats need to tack to the center and espouse positions that have wide public support—embrace what the pundit David Shor calls “popularism.” Relatedly, they should refuse to discuss antiracist policies—defunding the police, decriminalizing immigration—that might be popular with their multiracial base and continue to appeal to the white-working class in key electoral battlegrounds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
And yet, this position, is misguided. It rests on the assumption that persuasion, rather than base mobilization, is how to build robust political coalitions capable of transformational change. Throughout US history, moments of multiracial massive progressive mobilization—the antislavery of the 1850s, the antilynching movement of the 1910s, the labor movement of the 1930s, the civil rights movements of the 1960s—have pushed society to reckon with systemic inequality and expand the nature of democracy. This is what’s happening as we speak.
The 2020 racial justice protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd were just one, even if symbolically significant, moment in a decade of activism. Democratic socialists clamor for universal healthcare and a living wage. Feminists want to overturn patriarchy in all areas of life rather than simply educating “bad apple” misogynists. Queer activists rethink the cultural presumption that heterosexuality is normal and don’t simply settle for the right to get married. Environmentalists go beyond carbon credits and see as essential the elimination of the fossil fuel industry and the creation of good jobs in renewable energy. Undocumented rights activists want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which was only formed fifteen years ago in the wake of 9/11, under the Department of Homeland Security.
A bright future exists for these activists, many of whom are young people becoming directly engaged for the first time in a fight for a better world on a scale that we haven’t seen since the 1960s. The only way for civic radicals to successfully counter the civility zeitgeist is by changing the entire vocabulary of contemporary politics.
We have to be wary of criminal justice reform tethered to national security. The newest wave of federal criminal justice reform, the FIRS T STEP Act, passed in 2018, is based on reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have spiraled out of control over the past thirty years. But the act does nothing to change the school-to-prison pipeline or address the lack of access to healthcare for addiction and mental illness that leads to unstable and unsheltered populations, which are then policed and jailed. What FIRST STEP does, however, is optimize a fresh pool of cheap and insecure labor for the benefit of corporations. Unsurprisingly, one of the act’s key sponsors is the Koch Industries libertarian lobbying wing, Freedom Partners, whose zealous defense of free markets is only matched by its hostility toward a living wage and unions.
Under FIRST STEP, rather than languishing behind bars, prisoners have the chance to earn early release and then are funneled into precarious low-wage work. FIRST STEP implements algorithms and big data to determine who can cash in for “time-earned” credits for good behavior and thus be released early. But the data used by this program is hardly objective, and it only reinforces already existing racist ideas about who is likely to engage in recidivism. Even more troubling, FIRST STEP intensifies the reach of US xenophobic nationalism. Undocumented people, for instance, are barred from earning time-earned credits, because their crime of “illegality,” is described in the law as more grave than other offenses. In addition to sentencing reform, we should reject another reigning bipartisan consensus—accepted even by many moderate liberals—which is that public prisons should be dismantled because they are too expensive. This argument exists on a slippery slope: When questions of justice are reduced to dollars and cents, margins and losses, risk and risk aversion, there is no reason why prisons might not be cost effective again at some future date. Privatized for-profit prisons, which now hold 10 percent of the nation’s incarcerated people, are actually growing at an alarming rate: between 2000 and 2016 the private prison population increased five times faster than the entire prison population.
We must also loudly say that racism isn’t just an ugly belief but a system to be addressed with direct action and public policies. National Public Radio host Terry Gross recently asked Derek Black, a former prominent white supremacist who has denounced his racist views, whether he had “any guilt” about “other people who had committed violent acts and who espoused views that you had helped spread.” Gross’s question reveals a cultural presumption that must be uprooted. Racism has political, social, and economic functions and benefits that have made it appealing to certain people for centuries; it is not, as Gross describes, a sick, disturbed, and nasty thought to feel guilty about. Had Gross had the insight to ask Black to consider how his prior support for white supremacy was linked to—and just the tip of the iceberg of—a long history of institutional racism in US society, then she would have helped her audience understand that racism isn’t primarily a personal problem to be grappled with in the mind. The solution to systemic injustice isn’t being more respectful with one another or being remorseful about past racist behavior. Transformation can only happen after we recognize what is true, ugly as it may be.
Whatever form future anti-racist projects take, they must be based in democratic ideas of social equality, unconditional freedom, and liberation for all. Such democratic ideas mobilize, organize, provoke, unsettle, and inspire citizens to express what they believe society will and will not stand for, what it will and will not aspire to, what is and is not tolerable. So when we say democracy, we mean something that cuts against unbridled economic inequality, white supremacy, gender domination, transphobia, homophobia, and anti-immigrant nativism. Central to achieving this democratic ideal is acting locally while thinking globally. This doesn’t mean buying organic produce at the local farmers’ market or fair-trade coffee. It’s something broader.
Consider the recent Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016, which saw activists come to the sacred land of the Lakota Indians at Standing Rock, North Dakota, to resist the construction of an energy pipeline. Environmental degradation, these activists understood, disproportionately affects people of color, putting them at heightened risk for a host of health problems. But they also realized that what happens to the Lakota will soon be happening to the rest of us. Standing Rock for the government was a laboratory for conducting larger-scale destruction in the future.
Or think of the activists in Flint, Michigan, who described as environmental racism the process by which the city was put under emergency management in 2014 by Republican governor Rick Snyder, an act that led to the city’s decision to switch its water source from the Detroit River to the Flint River. The subsequent mismanagement of this change allowed lead from the pipes into the drinking water, which poisoned thousands of children.
Activists at Standing Rock and in Flint knew that when it comes to building lasting coalitions and majorities, thinking intersectionally is key. Racial, gender, and economic oppression are interconnected because they come from the same root. Black and brown people, women, queer people, and poor people cannot struggle against systemic discrimination alone. They and their white allies make up the 99 percent. Ending mass incarceration adds newly enfranchised citizens to the population who can fight with workers for a living wage. Mobilizing against anti-LGBTQ sentiment creates a society in which no one will have to police their sexualities and identities to conform to some imagined norm.
Demilitarizing schools, defunding police departments, and ending the death penalty is the only way to transform a system that profits from death, social control, and punishment into one that respects citizens’ inherent dignity. Political rights mean nothing without accessible healthcare for all, a living wage for workers, pensions for retirees, no-cost public college, affordable public housing, and myriad social programs such as food assistance, disability benefits, and retirement aid. Freedom from want creates a baseline for everyone to make reasoned and thoughtful choices about their lives. And without the concentration of labor power through public and private sector unions, this freedom will be endlessly under attack. Without this freedom, the people have little political power with which to influence policy.
When it comes to protest tactics for civic radicals, history shows the power of direct nonviolent action—of strikes, protests, sit-ins, and boycotts—to transform the world. A politics based in armed self-defense, in contrast, is a boon to the profit-making interests of gun manufacturers and right-wing politicians. And more to the point, self-defense is a dangerous position in a society in which blackness is criminalized by police departments and in which vigilante citizens and stand your ground laws in many states effectively permit white people to shoot at will when they feel scared.
For decades, political centrism has peddled the dream of economic abundance without any cost, of post-racialism—the result of equal opportunities for all—being just around the corner, of the end of bitter ideological conflict. But inequality and exclusion have always been evident in American culture, and these conditions have always been maintained through violence. The plea for activists to be civil—in the past, now, and always—subverts this reality and implies that things can’t really be that bad. After all, how can one even call for civility if catastrophe is staring one in the face? Isn’t the call to civility a product of a smug insistence that individual moral virtue will magically fix an ailing society? It can’t and it hasn’t.
Civic radicals throughout US history have always known this fact to be true. As we prepare for politics beyond Trump, we must know that the battle for the future is won in the present—using lessons from the past, the connections among us, and our dreams of transformation.
Excerpted from Against Civility: The Hidden Racism In Our Obsession With Civility by Alex Zamalin (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.