Conflict Now, Civility Later

Conflict is natural when one political order is slowly giving way to another.

There’s been a lot of talk about civility since Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder made news last week. Their comments have sparked a kind of backlash, as if they were tapping into a fear that the Democrats will behave as badly as the Republicans.

My question is: so what if they did?

To be sure, I think the Democrats will continue to value etiquette and courtesy. They are a broad coalition of factions that usually doesn’t get along unless a Republican is in the White House. With a madman in power, the Democrats’ midterm sales pitch has gone something like this: At least we’re nice enough to care about your health care.

And to be sure, the Democrats will never be “as bad.” The parties are different. The Republicans are more or less homogeneous—economically, racially and religiously. They can divide and conquer the country using all manner of bigotry. The Democrats, meanwhile, are heterogeneous—economically, racially and religiously. Bigotry isn’t going to work for them. If the Democrats are bad, they’ll be bad in their own way.

Some of Clinton’s and Holder’s critics are misrepresenting what they said. Steve Scalise, who should know better, accused Holder of calling for violence. He wasn’t. He was saying the Democrats need to get tough. Jon Gabriel, in the Arizona Republic, said Clinton was “denouncing civility.” She wasn’t. She was saying that civility isn’t possible, or desirable, when one party sees the other as illegitimate.

You may have noticed during the Barack Obama years hints of betrayal in Republican rhetoric. I know I did. I think that’s because, for so many conservatives, the election of the first African-American president was a bridge too far. It was as if political gains made by minorities, women, and immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, especially with respect to the Supreme Court, were tolerable as long as the other side were prevented from allowing those marginal forces to rise to the highest echelons of power.

The word “regime” is not typically used in an American setting, but it applies nonetheless. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the political regime of the United States was characterized by high taxation, high regulation, high federal investment, and broad middle class prosperity. From the 1980s until 2008, it was characterized by low taxation, low regulation, low federal investment, and growth, for some. During each period, the parties formed an unspoken consensus. Democracy could expand, quickly then slowly, as long as the blessings of liberty were primarily for white people.

Then came 2008. The liberals went too far. The Republicans were betrayed. The Democrats were no longer abiding by the established rules of engagement. In the past, Newt Gingrich had been an outlier in saying the Democrats were the enemy. By the time of Obama’s victory, however, those views had become conventional wisdom.

That we are arguing about civility suggests, I hope, an awareness of now being a pivotal moment in American history in which the old political regime is very slowly giving way to a new one. I don’t know what the new one will be, but the old one has all the markers of prior regimes: the dominant party has run out of ideas; it no longer has majority appeal; and its dominance has led to wholesale corruption and cultural decay.

The Republicans probably know this, and have since at least 2008. That’s why very little matters to them more than the courts. With conservatives in the federal judiciary, and with Justice Brett Kavanaugh now on the Supreme Court, the Republicans have enshrined minority rule for years—until there’s a widespread and deeply felt crisis.

With each transition from old political order to new, the underlying catalyst was massive upheaval. In the 1930s, that crisis was the Great Depression and World War. In the 1970s, that crisis included Vietnam, the backlash against civil rights, and the combination of inflation and economic stagnation. Yes, 2008 was big, but evidently not big enough to derail a conservative regime that has dominated politics for the last 40 years. The next political order won’t start with 2018. It is years in the making.

So what if the Democrats act badly? This is after all a time for conflict, a time in which equally opposing forces are ready to clash. One party has long been fighting an existential war. The other had previously convinced itself it could bide its time and wait for demographics to catch up. If anything, I think the Democrats have learned a lesson: politics is no longer about compromise. It’s about defeating the enemy.

Bipartisan compromise, and hence bipartisan civility, can return when the next political order has been established. Don’t expect it to return until then.

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