Civility Is an Essential, First-Tier Political Value

Demonstrators protest against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in front of the office of Sen. Susan Collins on Capitol Hill, September 24, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
‘Reach the movable middle, and the country and the culture will move with it,’ Peter Wehner advises in his new book.

A little skirmish broke out the other day in the conservative political and intellectual world. I hesitate to call it a “skirmish,” given that it was partly a debate about approaching our cultural debates as war, and about strategies for winning. I thought immediately of my late friend Andrew Breitbart and how restless he would sometimes get when conservatives would get too “eggheady.” This would happen especially when he visited friends in established conservative-movement circles. He respected their work and experience and dedication, but he wanted to go faster at the work of conserving the heritage and traditions of freedom and ordered liberty. I thought, too, of a story from National Review’s 50th-anniversary celebration. A wounded warrior was excited to meet Rush Limbaugh there. Rush, who has great gratitude and reverence for those who serve on many fronts, and especially the military, was embarrassed that a man who dramatically wore the devastation of war was treating the radio host as a hero. “We all have our roles,” the Marine told Limbaugh. Indeed, we do.

We also always need civility. One presidential election year, I caught up with New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan late at night on the final night of the Republican convention in Tampa. He was giving an invocation at both parties’ conventions that year and getting grief from many on the right for having extended an invitation, as traditionally happens, to both presidential candidates for the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York. He saw the fraying that was happening — around that time one political advertisement referred to “mourning in America.” Dolan implored people to consider that if we couldn’t even join to break bread, where could we come together? Fast-forward to the Al Smith dinner with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. The hostility at the event, where the candidates roast each another and laugh together, could have been cut with a knife. But at a quiet moment beforehand, even then, even in that worst of our modern elections, Dolan managed to get the two candidates to stop and pray privately together.

I had this all in mind when Sohrab Ahmari closed a piece criticizing my National Review colleague David French (both are friends) with this:

Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.

“Civility and decency are secondary values” are words that should give us real pause. And if you’re partial to Ahmari’s thinking right about now — wherever you are coming from — included in your summer reading should be Peter Wehner’s new book, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic after Trump.

In it, Wehner, who is, among other things, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes: “The task of citizenship in America today is not simply to curse the political darkness but to light candles. This can be done one person at a time, in your neighborhood and city, at a homeless shelter and a school board meeting, at neighborhood gatherings and city councils, and in countless other settings.” He also admits that “the great challenge for a book like this is that its greatest reach may be with people who least need to hear its message. The political entrepreneurs and social provocateurs who win profit and promotion by demeaning politics and coarsening discourse are not going to be swayed by a book like this.” (Ahmari is neither, by the way, but one of the commentators — an editor on the New York Post’s editorial page, who can help influence the former.)

“But modern psychology and ancient wisdom both show that the effect of example can be profound,” Wehner continues. “One such example was set by a prophet from Nazareth many years ago, and there have been many since.”

“What are we waiting for?” Wehner asks.

If each of us inspires or moves one or two or three other people to give politics — real politics, not just political theater — a second chance, to think twice before sending that inflammatory tweet, or to listen and question instead of jumping to disagree, then there will be millions among us. We don’t need to transform everyone’s behavior or temperament (something no conservative would ever want to attempt, by the way). Reach the movable middle, and the country and the culture will move with it.

Ahmari explains that the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings were a snap point for him, coming to this conclusion. The Kavanaugh hearings, as it happened, had me more convinced than ever that civility and decency must be first-tier values in politics. The contempt in the air is something of a social madness. It’s our moral duty to insist on decency, by leading with something better. We all have our roles, but as Pulitzer Prize winner Peggy Noonan put it in her commencement address at Notre Dame this year: “The secret of successful politics: Be moved more by what you love than what you hate.” Life, too, as it happens. That doesn’t mean we don’t disagree, and deeply. But it also means we might find still find a meeting place in our common humanity in the middle of some of our most contentious and necessary debates.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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