The general consensus was that Rep. Joe Wilson had done something wrong; a consensus including Wilson himself. The nature of his offense, though, caused some confusion. Some people suggested that Wilson’s incivility consisted of accusing the president of lying. That accusation — the charge that the object of criticism is intentionally uttering falsehoods, that he is speaking in bad faith — is not one that should be made lightly, although it frequently is. In the game of civil discourse, it is, when meant seriously, a way of calling time-out so that someone can be ejected.
Yet it would be absurd to say that accusations of lying should have no place in politics. Almost nobody has fretted about the incivility of President Obama, who was in the middle of charging that many of the critics of his health-care plan are lying when Wilson interrupted his speech. Wilson’s real offense, then, was precisely that he interrupted: He violated an important rule of democratic etiquette, that one should allow people to state their case even if one believes it to be (and even if it in fact is) dishonest and dangerous. His offense was thus precisely equivalent to that of the Democrats who booed in the middle of President Bush’s 2005 State of the Union address.
The initial behavior of Democrats and Republicans and their respective sympathizers following Wilson’s outburst suggested another rough consensus: that Wilson had hurt his party and his cause. This consensus may very well be wrong. The incident called more attention to Wilson’s claim that the House Democrats’ health-care legislation will offer subsidies to illegal immigrants, since it does not require that beneficiaries verify their legal status and Democrats had in two committees voted down amendments to impose such a requirement. Even though much of the press obscured the facts at issue, the controversy was sufficient to move the White House to support adding a verification provision to the bill.
Commentators were already talking about a rising tide of conservative incivility in the weeks and months before Congressman Wilson yelled. Concern had first attached itself to Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk-show hosts; over the summer it broadened to include town-hall protesters. This concern was not itself expressed in a notably civil manner: Newsweek ran a cover image of an angry-looking Limbaugh with his mouth blocked out. The Right’s uncouth rage was said to be alienating middle-of-the-road voters and thus preventing any possible Republican comeback. Sometimes this fear was voiced even by people who would like to see such a comeback.
The evidence that any such effect is occurring is hard to see in the polls. Middle-of-the-road voters have been expressing more and more dissatisfaction with President Obama’s agenda, job performance, and party, and a little bit more approval of the Republicans, during these days of rage.
There is of course a partisan double standard on civility. In our last issue, Jay Nordlinger provided a catalogue of Democratic boorishness from the Bush years. Howard Dean, he reminded us, said, “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for.” Terry McAuliffe said that Michael Moore was right: Bush had gone to war in Afghanistan (!) to help his business cronies. John Kerry joked about killing the president. Needless to say, Jay’s list was not exhaustive.
If all of this intemperate rhetoric hurt the Democrats at all with voters — and it is not clear that it did — the effect was not so large as to outweigh the causes of their resurgence. Their incivility was clearly at least compatible with their political success, and may have contributed to it. It assisted in the formation of a large body of liberal opinion that held Bush to be dishonest, stupid, and otherwise terrible. When centrist opinion turned on him too, perhaps that preparatory work caused it to do so more brutally than it would otherwise have done.
Even if rhetorical incandescence worked for the Left, it does not follow that it will for the Right. The media’s double standard presents right-wing anger as dangerous and offensive, while liberals are merely passionate. (A Halloween display in my neighborhood two years ago had Bush hanging in effigy: All in good fun, but don’t try it with the president this year.) Republicans have another handicap. Because of their social conservatism they risk appearing intolerant, and because of their economic conservatism mean. Displays of anger can lead voters to make either association. Democrats have to contend with a different set of negative impressions — that they’re soft-headed, for example — that their angry rhetoric does not deepen. It may even counter the impression that they’re wimps.
Besides, if incivility helped the Democrats regain power over the last decade, it is unlikely that it helped all that much. The principal sources of the Left’s revival are not difficult to identify: the years of denial that our strategy in Iraq was failing; stagnant wages; Republican corruption; the financial meltdown. The successful Democratic strategy consisted mostly of waiting for Republican mistakes and other propitious circumstances. By the end of the Bush administration, Republicans had lost much of their traditional advantage on national security and were seen as worse stewards of the economy than Democrats. The Democrats, meanwhile, retained their traditional strength on such social-policy questions as health care and the minimum wage. So they swept the field.
The political challenge for the Democrats over most of the decade was to pull closer to even on national security, and they managed to luck their way into doing so. The challenge for Republicans now is to rebuild their strength on national security and address their weakness on social policy. Loud challenges to the present administration’s policies on both fronts may advance both efforts, as would any disastrous results of those policies.
But Republicans must also present plausible solutions to voters’ concerns about health care, wages, and so forth — particularly if the results of Democratic policies are not unambiguously disastrous. Democrats did not have to come up with anything new on these topics during the Bush years, since these issues have not represented vulnerabilities for them. Neither making a big effort to get all Republicans to be on best behavior nor turning up the volume on conservative anger would release the Right from this obligation.
And since we cannot conclude with any confidence that civility is politically helpful, we will simply have to practice it because it is the right thing to do. As that least satisfying of maxims has it, virtue is its own reward.