Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Civility in American Politics

Timothy Sherratt


June 24, 2011
by Timothy Sherratt

Michael Gerson’s latest contribution to this column contrasts the media’s feverish hunt for dirt with the actual, but hidden, courtesies and kindnesses of vilified politicians. The recent trove of emails, which revealed a “real” Governor Palin as kindly and considerate towards her subordinates to the chagrin of her many detractors whose expectations have been fueled by a distorted media image, serves as his point of departure.

“This is the most basic explanation for political polarization in America—the tendency to deny the humanity of people we disagree with,” Gerson writes. Yes, that’ll preach, as they say—the reality of the Fall, along with its remedy in Jesus Christ, should always be preached.

What should not be preached is a reduction of this universal truth to the particulars of our politics, culture and media.  The way the Fall is manifested in the public square is not more fallen than you or me.  Let me explain.

The incentives built into American politics since its founding do encourage a harsh view of opponents. A representative pair of these incentives includes the zero-sum politics emanating from our antiquated electoral system and what has been called the “paranoid style.” The first makes one’s opponent the obstacle to everything; the second makes it easy to think he may be evil as well. In historian Gordon Wood’s view, the divisive 1790s, with the Alien and Sedition Acts, made the paranoid style a fixture on the American scene.

Zero-sum elections and paranoid style, meet hair-trigger media. The 24/7 requirements of today’s journalism readily convert political disagreement into “denials of humanity.” “Collateral damage” can take in “innocent civilians” as well as actual “combatants.” Last year, it was Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak whose finger twitched on that trigger when he precipitously fired Shirley Sherrod for “racist” remarks that turned out to be nothing of the kind.

Sometimes incivility overreaches, and the un-civil get bitten. The linking of Sarah Palin’s 2010 “targeting” of vulnerable Members of Congress, among them Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, with the Tucson shootings that took so many lives (and so nearly Ms. Giffords’)—despite her denunciation of the shootings—defies ordinary logic. But it fits the logic of modern media politics perfectly: a logic of guilt by association presided over by the hair trigger of contemporary communications.  

The Palin emails appear to show a governor who cares deeply about her state, as Michael Gerson suggests. However, Ms. Palin’s subsequent resignation stands in uncomfortable contrast to this image. Did she not exchange Governor Palin for Sarah Palin, Inc.? Does she not tease the G.O.P. with her maybe/maybe not Presidential aspirations, which may be better understood as keeping her business interests on the boil? Her conduct as governor paints a more complex portrait, to be sure, and is welcome for that reason. But we should not expect the emails to paint an entirely new portrait, as if the media version were mere smoke and mirrors. It isn’t.

Let’s also be clear about civility. It should not be equated with the outcome of those “multi-faith” dialogues whose ground rules (“don’t offend”) reduce faith to personal preference. Politics, like faith, throws up real differences. And that’s what we have to come to terms with.

Reducing real differences to stereotypes is enticing because stereotypes economize the hard work of acquiring knowledge, checking facts, developing good judgment, and persuading on the merits. Asserting respect for real differences in American politics does not come easily for the reasons I have outlined. The humanity Gerson invites us to reclaim is Christianity’s revelation of the human paradox: created dignity beyond our imagining; frailty as destructive as it is pervasive; humility, let alone repentance, in short supply. Christians, who should always start such reclamation projects with mea culpa, can take the lead.

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”