In the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle, the take-no-prisoners political rhetoric that found traction with Americans during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has reached new levels of toxicity.
With gerrymandered voting districts hollowing out the political center, figures on both ends of the spectrum have ratcheted up the vitriol and sweeping demonization of opponents.
Over the summer, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Democrat, encouraged her supporters to challenge any Trump administration officials who step foot in a restaurant, department store or gas station to show “that they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Some activists are now doing just that, harassing conservative politicians and their families when they appear in public.
Some Republicans, emboldened by an insult-spewing president, have responded by lamenting their own party’s past prioritization of virtue and civility as foolish and weak. As evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. explained recently in a tweet that quickly went viral, “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys,’ ” because the country “needs street fighters” like President Donald Trump to battle the Democratic “liberal fascists.”
Whether it’s politicians looking to fire up the base, or advocacy groups hoping for a fundraising surge, we have no shortage of voices willing to fan the flames of fear and the win-at-all-costs mentality that comes with it. When our country faces an existential threat from (whichever political party is not your own), the stakes are too high to cling to hopelessly outdated notions of civility.
These messages are finding a receptive audience. According to a Pew Research survey, 70 percent of active Democrats were already saying that Republicans make them “afraid” and 62 percent of active Republicans were saying the same thing about Democrats in 2016. Indeed, we fear the opposing party much more than we agree with our own party. In the same survey, only 16 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats said they “almost always” agree with their own party.
It appears that our political discourse is no longer driven primarily by ideas — it’s driven by fear of our fellow Americans. Members of the opposing party don’t simply disagree with my views on government; they have morphed into my enemy, and they must be stigmatized and shunned until they are stopped.
Does it have to be this way? The tyranny of the present — fed by a 24-hour news cycle and an ever-shrinking attention span — can lead us to ignore lessons from history. Ignorance empowers us to act as if our current political moment is unique, and as if the unprecedented direness of the situation justifies whatever tactic proves necessary to secure victory.
When we pause to remember our national story, we recognize that civility is not a luxury to be embraced when consensus is easy and conflict is minimal; civility is a necessity precisely when conflict appears insurmountable.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was no stranger to political conflict. Growing up in a society that was hard-wired for his exclusion and subjugation, King nevertheless made civility a centerpiece of his work. He grounded his work in human dignity, which powerfully shaped his understanding and portrayal of those who opposed racial equality.
He believed that every person — descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike — is “an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth.” To treat his opponents as something less than that would be to “desecrate” the person.
King’s insistence on the nonnegotiable need to respect every person cost him credibility in the face of more pessimistic analyses offered by figures such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. King’s contrary stance is captured in his assertion that we affirm our mutual dignity by recognizing one another as subjects in relationship.
When we deny the dignity of a person, “the image of God is abused in him and consequently and proportionately lost by those who inflict the abuse.”
King relentlessly championed the notion that “[t]he self cannot be self without other selves,” and “I cannot reach fulfillment without thou.” This is why King insisted that black empowerment was in the white community’s interests as well.
Seen in this light, King’s call to justice was about more than lifting up the marginalized and oppressed; it was about healing the relationships that are broken by marginalization and oppression, connecting us all with our true natures as created, mutually dependent beings. This provided firm boundaries for the means he was willing to employ in his pursuit of justice.
He recognized the necessity of conflict, but he swore off not just physical violence, but any violence of the spirit that would degrade or demean anyone — even his fiercest opponents. Justice’s call is not ultimately about power; it’s about relationship.
The means we employ in the political pursuit of our chosen values and priorities bear witness to how we view our fellow Americans.
As King reminded us during the tumult of the civil rights movement, “Hate is always tragic. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul.”
That prison cells, firebombs and police dogs could not shake King from his commitment to civility speaks volumes about its importance to his work — and to ours.
Here is the lesson for Americans today who seek to defend their cherished values and priorities in the public square: Civility is not ultimately about manners; it’s about affirming our shared dignity and acknowledging — albeit sometimes through gritted teeth — that politics calls us to relationship.
When we allow our disagreements to obscure the dignity of our political opponents, we’re forgetting why King thought such battles were worth fighting in the first place.
Robert K. Vischer is dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law and the author of “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Morality of Legal Practice: Lessons in Love and Justice.”