Is this the end of civility?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was verbally set upon in a restaurant parking lot over the weekend by a self-appointed posse of immigration shamers spewing slogans and personal insults.
The group, spearheaded by the local Kentucky chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, called McConnell a “fascist,” among other things. The senator, who was targeted because of his support for the Trump administration’s detention of illegal immigrants — though he opposed separating families — did not respond to his antagonists.
The incident was only the latest in a string of such ambushes of administration officials in public places. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s restaurant meal was interrupted by shouts of “Shame!” and “End family separation!” Presidential advisor Stephen Miller was called a “fascist” while dining out.
The trend apparently was ignited by the infamous incident at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, where White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave and the staff refused to serve her because of her position.
Sanders returned the insult with a dignified call for civility.
“We are allowed to disagree, but we should be able to do so freely and without fear of harm. And this goes for all people regardless of politics. Some have chosen to push hate and vandalism against the restaurant that I was asked to leave from. A Hollywood actor publicly encouraged people to kidnap my children.
“Healthy debate on ideas and political philosophy is important, but the calls for harassment and push for any Trump supporter to avoid the public is unacceptable,” she said.
For the most part, responsible officials have criticized these harassments, which have been perpetrated by individuals acting on their own or by organized radical activists.
But when a California Democratic congresswoman by the name of Maxine Waters tells a crowd, “For these members of his Cabinet who remain and try to defend [Trump], they’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they’re not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they’re not going to be able to shop [at] a department store. The people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them,” a line has been crossed.
Waters has been dismissed as a fringe politician, unrepresentative of the mainstream. But that any elected official should urge such behavior is outrageous and worrying.
Those who have taken up the new aggressiveness justify doing so on the logic that, as conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin explained, by “playing nice” they are “unilaterally disarming” themselves while the administration uninhibitedly breaks the rules of civil discourse.
The owner of the Red Hen, Stephanie Wilkinson, tried putting a positive spin on the negative behavior, telling reporters that “we just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions.”
That they are “living their convictions” at the expense of the personal anguish of others does not seem to concern her. Nor that one’s convictions can be expressed in a number of legitimate ways provided by a democratic society, like the voting booth, protest demonstrations, letters to the editor, and wearing conviction-declaring buttons.
They of course know this. But they also know the potential that the shaming tactics have to intimidate opponents and shut down debate. The vicious extension of the ad hominem, which attacks a person rather than focusing on issues and arguments, was deployed to such an extent during the Johnson and Nixon administrations that it lowered the bar for future generations.
Perhaps contemporary rabble rousers mistakenly think that the antiwar demonstrators chanting “Hey, hey LBJ, how many boys have you killed today?” and the vilification of Richard Nixon played a role in bringing their political careers to a premature end. The same can be done to President Donald Trump, they believe.
However, in reality, there is no indication that the personal insults hurled by demonstrators convinced president Johnson not to seek another term, and it was Watergate that caused Richard Nixon to resign.
Furthermore, as tempting as incivility may be, most Americans are appalled by it. An overwhelming majority — 78 percent — “think incivility and political dysfunction prevent our nation from moving forward,” according to the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse. These public shamings are liable to bring more shame on the shamers than on their intended victims.
Additionally, as others have pointed out, throwing people out of restaurants is eerily reminiscent of discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities over the years.
Beyond that, the spectacle of Americans at each others’ throats is no doubt witnessed with glee in such places as the Kremlin and the Guardian Council in Tehran. Few things threaten democracy more than an incapacity to debate vital issues peacefully and with mutual respect.
In the years preceding the Civil War, civil discourse dissolved into recrimination and violence. An acrimonious debate over slavery led to bloodshed on the floor of the U.S. Senate when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks bludgeoned and nearly killed Massachussetts Senator Charles Sumner, who had inveighed against the “shameful imbecility [of] slavery.” The North was horrified, but in the South, Preston was widely celebrated as a hero for “defending the honor of South Carolinians.”
The United States is still far from the violent atmosphere of the pre-Civil War years. Most people on both sides of the political divide still abhor the breaches of civil discourse that can easily lead to much worse things.
Hopefully, the civil majority will prevail.