Ci­vil­ity still best pol­icy for Democrats

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) - - OPINION - Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist. Email: nfeld­

The con­sen­sus on ci­vil­ity emerg­ing from Demo­cratic Party lead­er­ship in the wake of Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh’s con­fir­ma­tion seems to be, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Hil­lary Clin­ton told CNN that it was im­pos­si­ble to be civil to Repub­li­cans un­til the Democrats win back Congress.

And on Wed­nes­day a tape sur­faced of Eric Holder, the for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral who’s con­sid­er­ing a 2020 pres­i­den­tial run, say­ing that in­stead of Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high,” the Demo­cratic plan should be “When they go low, we kick them.”

Is go­ing low the right choice? That ques­tion can be di­vided into two parts. Will the Democrats in fact do bet­ter in Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tions and be­yond by adopt­ing Trumpian tac­tics of in­ci­vil­ity? And if they would do bet­ter by go­ing full Don­ald Trump, would it be worth it?

The an­swer to the first, prag­matic ques­tion may well be yes. The 2016 pres­i­den­tial election has been in­ter­preted as proof that the way to win elec­tions in this closely di­vided po­lit­i­cal era is to en­er­gize the base, not to win over mod­er­ate swing vot­ers. And right now, the Demo­cratic base is feel­ing pretty an­gry.

Yet the as­sump­tion that anger will turn out de­ci­sive Demo­cratic vot­ers the way it worked for Trump with Repub­li­cans needs close ex­am­i­na­tion. The last time the Demo­cratic base — es­pe­cially black vot­ers — turned out in force was for Barack Obama. In 2008, Obama vot­ers were mo­ti­vated by hope, not anger against Repub­li­cans. In 2012, many blacks turned out again so that Obama’s ac­com­plish­ment in get­ting elected pres­i­dent wouldn’t be re­pu­di­ated. It’s not clear (yet) that anger and in­ci­vil­ity would bring out those vot­ers in the 2018 midterms.

Then there’s the fact that emerg­ing Demo­cratic stars don’t sport an­gry per­sonas. Beto O’Rourke, run­ning for the U.S. Se­nate in Texas, has stead­fastly re­fused to run neg­a­tive ads against the in­cum­bent Repub­li­can Ted Cruz. O’Rourke may not win, but he’s al­ready much closer than any­one would have ex­pected. He has mo­ti­vated the base with heart­felt speeches that re­flect emo­tion but not in­ci­vil­ity.

The same is true of fur­ther left can­di­dates like Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Press­ley in Bos­ton. Both women of color broke through and won their pri­maries for U.S. House seats by be­ing en­gag­ing and pas­sion­ate — but not un­civil.

Nev­er­the­less, as­sume that Clin­ton and Holder have it right po­lit­i­cally, and that the Democrats should name-call and cat­call like Trump to find a path to vic­tory. I still want to ar­gue that they shouldn’t do it.

Win­ning the House would be enough to block Trump from pur­su­ing his leg­isla­tive agenda, and win­ning the Se­nate would al­low us not to spend the next two years ob­sess­ing over Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg’s health. But even these gains aren’t worth the Demo­cratic Party sell­ing its soul and em­brac­ing in­ci­vil­ity the way the Repub­li­cans have un­der Trump’s lead­er­ship.

What’s so great about ci­vil­ity? Cit­i­zen­ship, that’s what. The word “ci­vil­ity” de­rives from the Latin word for ci­ti­zen. It’s not like cour­tesy, which refers to the man­ners you use at a royal court.

Ci­vil­ity is the ba­sic be­lief that the other side in the po­lit­i­cal de­bate is just as com­mit­ted to good cit­i­zen­ship in the repub­lic as you are. Ci­vil­ity leads to po­lite be­hav­ior be­cause it starts with the good faith as­sump­tion that the other side is well-in­ten­tioned, even if its be­liefs are wrong.

To be sure, a good faith as­sump­tion can be over­come by the facts. Self-con­scious racists and white na­tion­al­ists aren’t well-in­ten­tioned. And treat­ing them with ci­vil­ity can be a moral er­ror, even if they hap­pen to be cit­i­zens in the tech­ni­cal sense.

But when it comes to the great ma­jor­ity of Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing many Trump sup­port­ers, Democrats would be mak­ing an er­ror of ma­jor pro­por­tions if they adopted the be­lief that all such peo­ple are lack­ing the in­ten­tion to make the repub­lic the best it can be.

When both sides stop treat­ing each other as cit­i­zens, bad things hap­pen. Dis­course dies. Rea­soned dis­agree­ment be­comes ha­tred.

Ul­ti­mately, the fi­nal break­down in the norms of ci­vil­ity is civil war — de­fined as the state in which cit­i­zens cease to share a com­mon pur­pose, and be­come en­e­mies. When civil war hap­pens, re­publics die.

That’s why Democrats shouldn’t aban­don ci­vil­ity just for some short-term gains. The game isn’t worth the can­dle. A repub­lic in which every­one acts like Trump isn’t a repub­lic wor­thy of the name. Rather, it’s a fo­rum for rage and con­tes­ta­tion just wait­ing for the next blowup.

Once a party has squan­dered ci­vil­ity, it’s very, very hard to get it back. Repub­li­cans are go­ing to be learn­ing that well af­ter Trump has left pol­i­tics. All the politi­cians who have sup­ported his agenda are go­ing to be tainted — for a gen­er­a­tion.

And if the moral ar­gu­ment against short-term in­ci­vil­ity doesn’t con­vince you, maybe a prag­matic long-term ar­gu­ment will. His­tor­i­cally, win­ning mod­er­ate swing vot­ers has been the key to win­ning na­tional elec­tions. It’s how all pres­i­dents since Ron­ald Rea­gan won, un­til Trump. Trump may have up­ended our ex­pec­ta­tions and norms. But he prob­a­bly hasn’t in­au­gu­rated a new law of pol­i­tics.

When the time comes again to win elec­tions the old-fash­ioned way, the Democrats will want to claim the man­tle of ci­vil­ity. Re­spect­ing its norms now will keep that pos­si­bil­ity alive.

The 2016 pres­i­den­tial election has been in­ter­preted as proof that the way to win elec­tions in this closely di­vided po­lit­i­cal era is to en­er­gize the base, not to win over mod­er­ate swing vot­ers.

Kevin Wolf / As­so­ci­ated Press

For­mer At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder speaks at the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign last month.

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