Lately, civil society has taken a decidedly uncivil turn — in both big ways and small. From Robert De Niro shouting “F*** Trump” on live television to a restaurant owner asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant and, most recently, “Occupy ICE” protesters heckling Mitch McConnell as he left a restaurant (“We know where you live, Mitch! . . . Abolish ICE! . . . No comfort for fascists”).
Sometimes the target of political ire is not a public figure at all. When the owner of a bookstore in Richmond intervened after one of his patrons started yelling at Steve Bannon, Philippe Reines — a longtime senior adviser to Hillary Clinton — published the bookstore’s information on Twitter. (And when I told him this was irresponsible, he blocked me.)
It is not just liberals, either. Journalists are routinely harassed and insulted by attendees at Donald Trump rallies.
All of these illustrate a lack of civic virtue today. This is worrisome and discouraging, for maintenance of self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry.
The Constitution does not mandate any methods to instill civic virtue in the people. In fact, it specifically outlaws an established church, which had once been argued as necessary for maintaining a virtuous citizenry. This prohibition was in part due to a suspicion that such a church, even though it ostensibly aimed to inculcate virtue, would inevitably become a tool for the powerful to entrench their privileged position. This is a big reason that the heartiest advocates for the separation of church and state were Protestant denominations such as the Baptists. Additionally, the Constitution makes no explicit provision for education, and even today, though the government funds education, it mostly leaves the specifics of curriculum to the states and localities.
Nonetheless, the Framers thought that civic virtue was crucial. At the 1788 ratifying convention in Virginia, James Madison offered a good explanation of the importance of virtue in our constitutional system. He and his Federalist allies were locked in a bitter battle with Patrick Henry and the Anti-Federalists, who believed that this new centralized government would quickly become corrupt. Madison responded that ultimately the success of the constitutional experiment would come down to the goodness of the people:
I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.
The importance of virtue in a liberal government such as ours — with its relentless emphasis on individual rights and personal privileges — is easily overlooked. So it is good to be reminded by passages like this.
Just as we have freedom of conscience, so we should respect that the consciences of others may lead them to divergent conclusions.
Civic virtue implies a series of obligations shouldered by the citizenry, which can be appreciated as analogous to our rights. Just as we have the right to speak freely, we should not speak dishonestly. Just as we have the right to peacefully petition our representatives for the redress of grievances, we should not be uncivil toward them. Just as we have the right to vote, we should endeavor to educate ourselves so we make an informed vote. Just as we have the right to enjoy a government of laws and not of men, we should not be disdainful of the lawmaking process, at least so long as there are ways to reform it. Just as we have freedom of conscience, so we should respect that the consciences of others may lead them to divergent conclusions. Just as Congress is not allowed to single out individuals or groups with bills of attainder or ex post facto laws, so we should try to think beyond our own personal tribe and contemplate the good of the whole nation.
Our rights are essential to a republican form of government, because they enable “we the people” to deliberate. This is how public opinion, as expressed through the medium of representative government, becomes a benevolent sovereign of the nation. The same is true of civic virtue, for it implies not only a careful use of our rights but also a respect for — and deference to — the rights of others.
I don’t know what to do about the lack of civility in our civil discourse. There is a growing sense of entitlement, a declining notion of duty, and insufficient anxiety over the degradation to our politics. Probably very little can be done. But it is worrisome.