The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The left and the right cry out for civility, but maybe that’s asking for too much

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during an awards ceremony for the Georgetown Institute for Women at Georgetown University in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton is done with civility.

“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about,” Clinton declared in a recent CNN interview. When and if Democrats assume power in Congress, she said, “that’s when civility can start again.” Members of the American left agreed; those on the American right did not. Meanwhile, a study published last week by the think tank More in Common found that 80 percent of Americans believe that “political correctness is a problem.” Conservatives hailed the study as supplying empirical backing to common sense; liberals dismissed it as methodologically flawed and politically motivated.

Both “political correctness” and “civility” have become inflammatory notions in the post-2016 world. But what are they? Essentially, they’re both modes of speech and public conduct that aim to address the largest possible number of listeners without offense. In a liberal democracy, where citizens deliberate in public about political choices, it’s critical to have a widely inclusive, intelligible manner of speaking.

The great liberal theorist John Rawls called this maximally inclusive way of communicating about politics “public reason,” and he considered it essential to maintaining a functional liberal democracy. It’s hard to debate issues when the two parties can establish little or no common ground from which to advance their differing points. A good indication that both civility and political correctness serve the role of establishing common ground in our democracy is that each habit refers to politics in its name — very obviously, in the case of “political” correctness; civility, meanwhile, comes from the Latin civilis (pertaining to public life, politics, citizenship), which in turn comes from civis, “citizen.”

What people don’t like about both civility and political correctness is also — not just coincidentally — the very same thing: the obligation to translate what one really thinks into language someone else will not be offended by. For many, this burdensome process feels a lot like lying, and the resulting “common ground” created in the process seems artificial. Consider Gregory, a 43-year-old IT consultant profiled in More in Common’s study. “I define [political correctness] as lying,” Gregory told researchers. “Not saying what you really think. It really hurts everybody.” Writing in New York magazine, Sarah Jones, a gifted left-wing thinker, put it this way: “Euphemisms, whether the term is ‘incivility’ or ‘racially tinged,’ have a veiling effect. Viewed through the lens of euphemism, problems don’t look like structural injustice, but like impolitic language.”

At the moment, it appears that the demands of public reason are, at last, too intense. People don’t seem to want to translate their closely held beliefs into language they view as misrepresentative of what they actually think. At the same time, people are largely unreceptive to dealing with statements of belief that they find deeply objectionable. So where do we go from here?

It’s perhaps pertinent that More in Common’s study found some 67 percent of Americans belong to what it labeled an “Exhausted Majority” who “express disillusionment, frustration, and anger at the current state of U.S. politics.” These people are generally disengaged from politics and irritated by the fact that, politically speaking, everyone is outraged and furious all the time. People don’t like to feel that way, it seems, and tend to detach themselves from politics rather than put up with it.

Onlookers stressed by the tenor of political discourse want to know how to get back to the way things were before, when public life seemed roundly governed by gentlemanly etiquette. But what if what’s happening is more the rule than the exception? We may have to reconcile ourselves to the idea that this is just what liberal democracy feels like.

Teresa M. Bejan’s excellent book “Mere Civility: Disagreements and the Limits of Toleration” certainly suggests that early modern experiments in liberal democracy felt hellaciously brittle and tense thanks largely to breakdowns in public reason. And the American experience of the 19th and early 20th centuries — complete with riotous strikes, armed conflict between organized labor and its enemies, anarchist terrorism and more — was certainly no calm discussion between peers.

It’s possible that the “postwar consensus” — those halcyon days when Americans seemed largely happy with one another — was actually a rare and temporary calm period triggered by the unique circumstances of the top half of the 20th century. If that is indeed the case, we need to focus more on forming a strategy for a new political era than demanding a return to the tones and techniques of one lost to time.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: In Trump’s America, tribalism reigns

Editorial Board: Let the Trump team eat in peace

Elizabeth Bruenig: Why bother to bear children in a world wracked by climate change?

Letters to the Editor: Civility in our public discourse doesn’t just happen on its own

Michael Gerson: Tribalism triumphs in America