In the rush to line up behind the man formerly known as a frequent guest on Howard Stern’s radio show, many self-identified conservatives outlined a bargain they were willing to make: look away from, hold our noses at, or even defend as “forthright and honest” the future president’s coarseness, vulgarity, and shattering of civil norms for the sake of long-treasured political goods. Once defined precisely by its conservation of civil norms, a new conservatism emerged willing to fight on the left’s terms by breaking anything necessary to advance its aims. As the Trump administration progressed, real political gains could be invoked as norms broke and collapsed and deliberate incivility increased. We are at war, we were told, and war isn’t fought according to rules of comportment. This week, we can hope, the full measure of that bargain was exposed as a fraud, but one of significant consequence to all of us.
“Civility” has been denounced by some on the right, by some who fashion themselves “conservative,” because the word suggests “niceness” or “politeness” that in turn seems close to effeminacy. Since—according to these folks, we’re fighting a war, we must eschew civility in favor of weapons appropriate to the conflict and employed already by those against whom we battle. We must fight like men. Trump, they claimed and he has shown, is willing without respect for rules, or truth, or anything that might impede winning.
But civility is not a quality accidental to good politics. The word itself pleads with us to recall its connection to civil society, to the “public” it serves. Yes, in contemporary usage the term suggests first comportment and manners. But civility is deeper than that (so are, for that matter, comportment and manners). Civility, as the Latin suggests, is rooted in the qualities associated with being a citizen, and indeed, a good citizen, of a political community. “Civility,” in other words, suggests the existence of a political community and the qualities uniting that community’s members in conversation with each other.
Civility is therefore an essential part of politics. Civility suggests the participation in reflection and dialogue about the goods of life in community. In political community there will always be disagreement about these goods. People will disagree about which goods in fact are goods, and even when agreeing on goods, they will disagree about the best paths and instruments of their pursuit. Disagreement is thus a feature of life in political community. Often that disagreement will be vigorous, and the best political arrangement regarding that good will be mere compromise. Compromise in politics is not failure, however much from a theological perspective we may regret it, as compromise reminds us of the privation of the good in fallen human existence. Political life can only bear reflections of the good, not the full goods themselves. And as these are mere reflections, they will shift and with them the fittingness of the compromises meant to secure those goods. The conversation among fellow citizens must therefore continue in search of new compromises. Civility—fellow regard, openness, respect, decency—must accompany the conversation. To reject civility is to reject politics.
The alternative to politics is not war, but barbarism: the complete inability to converse and reason about shared goods. War, as I and many others have argued, is an extension of politics. War too is fought according to rules of civility. The connection of war to politics is what Carl von Clausewitz meant by his most abused phrase. But barbarism is something else entirely. It would be hard to pick out the most bizarre photo from the crashing of the Capitol Wednesday, but certainly the bare-chested, horned man in the raccoon cap merits consideration. It brought to mind John Courtney Murray’s claim in We Hold These Truths: “The barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand. He may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen.” Well, perhaps sometimes he will appear as the former! He was there, however, by the conditions of the original bargain with the man in a more expensive suit. He was invited by all of us—right and left—who for decades have done the work of the barbarian. According to Murray, that work is “to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived, and to do this… by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment.”
The consolation, such as it is, comes in Murray’s reminder of the “theological intuition” that we’re always on the brink of barbarism. What happened this week is always possible. Maintaining the conditions of civilization is tough work. Fortunately, most people prefer civilization to barbarism; the human instinct for survival is not an instinct for the mere good of bodily life, but for all those things necessary for human survival as humans, including conversation with others about the goods of real human living. We have to continue to commit ourselves to the conditions necessary to continue that conversation in a manner that doesn’t undermine the possibilities of its own success. We have to recommit to civility.