The Problem with Civility

Democrats should know better than to cede to a double standard

Photo by annie bolin on Unsplash

The political landscape is growing increasingly bleak to those on the left side of the aisle — there’s the family separation crisis at the border, and the loss of a key ally on the Supreme Court. The stakes could not be higher, and the grassroots are rising to the occasion. Activists are protesting, engaging in civil disobedience, and making life uncomfortable for those complicit in the injustices of the Trump administration. But as Republicans call once agian for “civility” in the discourse, the Democrat establishment leaders are letting down the base by allowing the GOP to dictate the terms of the conversation.

We see this tepid reaction from the center-left over and over. Put any amount of pressure on the right, and leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer start to backpedal away from the efforts of grassroots activists. Schumer’s reponse was especially frustrating; he drew a false comparison between calls for accountability from the Trump administration to “calling for the harassment of political opponents.” They ignore the fact that while activists are calling on Republicans to be humane, the president himself has tried to provoke violence from his supporters.

Perhaps Pelosi and Schumer don’t comprehend the dire consequences of letting the Trump administration continue down the path to fascism. Perhaps they don’t realize this is our point of no return, if we fail to act. Perhaps in their position of relative power and socioeconomic privilege, they are too insulated from the ill effects of the administration’s policies to feel an urgency to combat them.

Either way, history shows that being civil rarely accomplishes anything. Look at the sit-ins and boycotts of the Civil Rights movement, which forced discomfort upon racist white people. Look at the strikes of the labor movement, which put pressure on wealthy business owners. The progress claimed by such movements came from challening the status quo, and not giving the opposition the option of ignoring their demands.

Party leaders have also failed to make a distinction between the bigotry and cruelty of the President’s administration versus the righteous pushback from leftist activists. There is a world of difference between turning asylum seekers away at the border, and making sure the people enforcing that policy cannot eat peacefully at a restaurant serving the cuisine of the people they are deporting. People like DHS Secrety Kirstjen Nielsen should not be allowed to engage in that kind of blatant hypocrisy, not when they can’t respect the human rights of refugee children to stay with their parents.

And it is hypocrisy. At the same time members of the GOP call for “civility,” they refuse to play by the same rules. It’s not always such overt hypocrisy as Nielsen’s and Stephen Miller’s; often it is more subtle and insidious.

It can come in the form of disingenuine lip-service. Someone like Vice President Mike Pence, for example, sees no problem in fighting for anti-LGBTQ policies while claiming to be “for ALL” Olympic athletes when criticized by Olympian Adam Rippon. He operates under the same assumption as many Republicans that their words should speak louder than their actions. To indulge them in that delusion helps no one.

This delusion is particularly prevalent when it comes to LGBTQ issues. The cast of Queer Eye were asked in a recent interview if they would be comfortable doing a makeover on the show for the homophobic baker the Supreme Court ruled in favor of this year. Karamo Brown and Jonathan van Ness took both sides of the civility debate in their answers. Brown believes it could be helpful to engage with the baker and try to change his mind. Van Ness on the other hand, argued against “legitimizing” the baker’s bigoted views by putting him on the wide-reaching platform of their show. He also called out the attitude of people like Mike Pence, who will openly voice views of acceptance, but privately lobby and legislate against the rights of LGBTQ people. Their idea of civility is being nice to a queer person’s face, then going behind their backs to discriminate against them.

What happens when Democrats do decide to use the civility strategy? The right takes advantage. While we play by the rules and treat the opposition as no more than exasperating relatives who must be humored, Republicans change the rules and snatch the rug out from under us. They stole a Supreme Court nomination from President Obama, and they will certainly not return the favor by failing to nominate a pick of Trump’s. Conservatives continually lie to gain, consolidate, and maintain power, and they do not apologize for it.

Texas pro-choice activists will of course remember the summer of 2013, when Republican members of the state senate did everything they could to pass an omnibus abortion law, including cheating the rules. First they ended State Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster on bogus points of order. They refused to recognize her colleague Leticia Van de Putte, whose memorable words sparked more than ten solid minutes of yelling from protesters inside the Capitol building, running out the remaining time in the legislative session. Then they blatantly changed the time stamp on a too-late vote in an attempt to get their way.

After the dust settled, Speaker David Dewhurst accused the grassroots activists of being a calculated and “unruly mob” for protesting the unfairness of it all. Who was civil there? Should protesters have just stayed quiet and followed decorum? Who is expected to follow the rules — politicians, or just the people whose interests they are supposed to represent?

While mainstream Democrats are content to wait their turn for a Congressional majority, for another shot at the presidency, conservatives are wasting no time. They are doing everything they can to ensure Democrats don’t get another shot at majority power — they have gerrymandered districts to prevent marginalized groups from forming a powerful voting bloc, and gutted voting rights to disenfranchise liberal minority voters.

When Republicans demand civility, they are not demanding fairness, because that would require a complete reversal of their own political strategy. They are merely asking that they be able to eat at a restaurant in peace, that the peaceful bubble of their privilege not be broken by the people they aim to oppress. They are prioritizing the protection of their fragile feelings over the rights and bodily integrity of everyone else. Because politics is not a matter of life and death to them, but of wealth and privilege, they are able to treat it like a game — lying and cheating accordingly.

And they get their way, over and over, because they are willing to be the loudest, least polite voice. They attract motivated voters at the local level, often through fearmongering and outright lies. They are petty and determined enough to take over every government institution from the ground up. Give an inch, and they take a mile. Give them a mile, and pretty soon they’ve built a border wall. Meanwhile, Democrats are asleep at the wheel, complacent and equivocating.

I am not saying that Democrats should engage in gerrymandering, too, or resort to the same underhanded legislative tactics as our counterparts. But we do need to speak out and push back against Republicans’ bad behavior. We cannot stand idly by and let them get away with it, especially when getting their way involves literal human rights abuses. We have a responsibility to stand up and tell them “this isn’t right, this isn’t acceptable.” And when people like Kirstjen Nielsen have the gall to eat in a Mexican restaurant after defending the inhumane policy of separating asylum-seeking families at the border, they deserve to be publicly shamed. If our most senior leaders won’t support us in this resistance, we need new progressive leadership. We can be nice, or we can win.

The problem with civility is that it requires good intentions from all parties. It requires respect. And above all, it requires humanity. Civility is in short supply on the right, and the left has no obligation to accept a double standard.