America Used To Be More Civil
I often hear people say that American politicians used to be more civil when dealing with issues and one another. Assuming that’s true, why is this the case? I believe that today’s toxic discourse is a response by those in power to those who are becoming empowered. I also believe that the so-called civility of the past was worse than the lack of civility today. Why? Because in the past, civility was achieved at a high cost: by the powerful ignoring the powerless, by excluding them from the conversation. Today, at least, with the powerless becoming empowered, issues that were once swept under the rug are now out in the open.
America in the past always excluded certain people. Lawmakers never had to worry very much about minority groups because these groups lacked the power to challenge the norm and were essentially invisible during the periods of civility that so many people today long for. I do not believe I have the answers for restoring civility – a more informed and inclusive civility -- but here are my thoughts based on what I have been studying and observing.
I would argue that "we used to be a civil nation" only pertains to those who had the power, who were leading this country, and to those who benefited from their power. The leaders controlled the narrative, agenda and who got to participate. Even though everyone participated in building this amazing nation, willingly or unwillingly, not everyone was granted the same alienable rights. The truth is, there was no time in the history of this country when genuine civility, civility for all, existed. Civility was for the powerful and the privileged. It was a closed circle. Everyone outside it was regarded as something less than a person and, in some cases, less than human. So, the powerless mostly kept their heads down, tried not to make trouble and just followed, but many suffered along the way.
Today the power dynamics are very different. America has become too progressive too fast for most lawmakers to keep up. Politicians who have been successful have leveraged the narratives of the people from movements, issues and programs like Black Lives Matter, the Green New Deal, Never Again MSD, stricter gun control (background checks, assault weapons ban, etc.), Women’s reproductive rights, comprehensive immigration reform, DACA protections, pathways to citizenship, protection for asylum seekers, Medicare for all, tax reform favoring the middle class, reparations for African Americans, and so on.
On the other side of the coin we have White Lives Matter, Second Amendment advocates, deportation of all illegal immigrants, family separation, the Muslim ban, the Wall, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, ending DACA, cutting Social Security, repealing Obamacare, removing all environmental regulations, Climate Change deniers, tax policy favoring the rich, ending safety net programs, etc.
Politicians on both the left and right leverage the different narratives I listed in order to gain influence on issues that align with their base. Minority groups and their ideologies have gained substantial influence of their own. Most of the time these influences just get exploited. Most people just want to hear that someone supports them, that someone validates their ideologies. Politicians are very tactical in what narrative they align with and push out.
With Obama we witnessed a willingness and enthusiasm to embrace change. His views on civil unions and other social issues changed because of the pressure he received from folks who supported progressive ideologies. Trump leveraged the narrative of the forgotten white Americans who were struggling to achieve better lives. As industry evolved the jobs of these Americans either moved overseas or disappeared completely. Trump was able to amplify and their concerns and resentments. Foreigners took their jobs, he said. When he aligned his ideologies with their feelings, they felt empowered to show up, to go public, even with their darkest impulses because they now had representation, a champion.
Democrats gravitate toward progressive movements and Republicans focus on preserving the “civil” past. Today, progressive ideologies challenge the status quo. Many people would say that’s a good thing. It’s a major part of what makes America America. Furthermore, over time people become more accepting of progressive change as certain groups gain momentum and their progressive ideologies break into the mainstream. People start changing their minds as others around them do. Those who felt oppressed feel less so when they get a piece of the pie.
Having lost power to the powerless at home, some Republicans have found it necessary to exert their power over a new powerless group: immigrants. The influx of people wanting to come to America for a better life is in result of how they perceive America: as a place of success. So they risk everything to come here, legally or illegally. On arrival to America, they discover their fight to be empowered can be just as daunting as the situation they escaped. But the freedom and opportunities they get here even as illegals is far better than the conditions they left from their home country.
In the past there were certain morals and principles both sides agreed to regardless of what side they were on. Those who did not fit in had to assimilate and find ways to cope with a society that didn’t see them. It is harder today because the left is moving further left and the right is moving further right. Both the Republican and Democrat party feel in order to build influence they have to amplify the narrative of their base than coming in the middle to find common ground. It is left to the people in the middle to identify with the narrative that best reflect their struggle to sway to the right or to the left. Those in the middle feel empowered to advocate for what they think is right for them. They have to decide who to align with. How do we come together when we all feel empowered to advocate for what we want and what we think is right? What does it mean to be an American? Who deserves to live in this country and who is not welcome and why?
To answer these hard questions with fairness to all doesn’t simply require a lot of thought. Even more than that it requires an informed and inclusive civility. I wonder if we are up to the challenge.