On Civility; or “I Learned it from Watching You!”

June 26, 2018

By Joel Sawyer
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Following the White House Press Secretary being asked to leave a Virginia restaurant and Congresswoman Maxine Waters doubling down on calls to harass Cabinet members, there’s been a lot of finger wagging from the professional political class and the cable news class about “civility” – what it means, how it should be practiced, and how we should conduct politics in this country.

They’re largely right. In a country where just a little over half of the voting age population bothers to show up for presidential elections – with even more anemic participation during Congressional midterms, and worse still for partisan primaries that are often where elections are actually decided – it would seem a better first step toward making change in America might be to get off your ass and go vote before you start harassing people at restaurants. According to Pew, we rank 26th out of 32 highly developed democracies for voter participation.

(Bonus: Listen to our Civility discussion on this week’s show)

But the calls for civility are particularly ironic from people in politics and news-entertainment media who’ve lined their pockets by proffering a menu of redder meat (or bluer meat, I guess, for the Left) year after year, both during elections and nightly on cable news channels.

To quote my favorite 80’s public service announcement: They learned it from watching you.

For as long as many of us can remember, politics has been defined not by complex discussion of policy, vigorous debate, and eventual compromise, but by talking points and sound bites that distill big ideas down to the point that they’re memorable but meaningless. Instead of point-counterpoint, we have snark-countersnark.

Whether it’s a cable news panel featuring two diametrically opposed guests or a made-for-TV committee hearing, it’s a familiar formula – talking over the person who is actually present, and talking to the folks watching on TV. It’s communication designed to reinforce viewers’ bias rather than encouraging anyone to think for themselves or – perish the thought – re-evaluate what one believed before turning on the tube.

And here’s the dirtiest secret, one not secret at all to the media-political complex: It’s pure performance art. The people yelling loudest at one another often times laugh about it over a beer afterward. They attend each other’s kids’ birthdays. They send one another Christmas cards.

America didn’t get the joke, though. And as ratings climbed and the token Republican and token Democrat were able to afford sending one another’s children increasingly expensive graduation gifts, voters didn’t see behind the curtain. They saw political theater, and mistook it for politics. And I’m in no mood for a lecture from the overpaid actors in this tragedy.

The best ideas lost to the loudest ideas, and complex ideas lost to simple ones. Take healthcare for instance, where practically the entirety of the debate for nearly A DECADE now has been whittled down to being for or against the ACA/Obamacare. More and more politicians began running and winning based on the twin pillars of outrage and simplicity. Cable news-entertainment egged it on. The pols success begat even more outrageous and simpler ideas. Nuance died.

Then along came Donald Trump.

The President represents a different, terrible level of incivility to be sure, but he didn’t create the monster. He just figured out how to throw a saddle on it, sharpen its claws and teeth, and ride it all the way to the White House. He is the logical extension of everything we – Republicans and Democrats alike – allowed our politics to become.

If you want to want to change things, it’s not going to be accomplished by scanning cable news and Twitter for the sickest counter-burns. It’s not going to be accomplished by trolling or threatening Trump supporters or the people who work for him. That stuff is easy, but it ultimately doesn’t change anything. I would argue that it in fact empowers and emboldens bad actors.

If you really want to make things better, go vote. Have a conversation – an actual conversation – with someone who disagrees with you. Read a smart op-ed that argues for something you completely oppose.

The antidote to incivility doesn’t lie in trying to out-Trump Trump. It lies in doing the exact opposite – turning off the TV, getting off social media, yelling less, and realizing that many of the people we disagree with are fantastic folks that we have much more in common with than we realize.

It doesn’t mean you can’t be pissed off when bad things are happening in our country. It means that the easiest, most emotionally satisfying reactions are at best meaningless and at worst counter-productive, but the actions that take real time, energy and sacrifice are the ones that will ultimately matter.

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