Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: It’s a mad time, and that’s democracy

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

You mad?

I know I am. And I know that a lot of people who lean my way are mad. And I know that a lot of people who lean the other way are mad. The people in the streets are mad, and the people holding town halls when their representatives won’t are mad, and the people who don’t like the people in the streets or at the town halls are mad, and the president is utterly mad – in every sense – as are his enablers in Congress and the times themselves.

Mad. It’s a tense, anxious, angry time. I’ve butted heads with family and friends over politics, to say nothing of the head-butting with people who are neither. I’ve seen more insults slung, more names called, more ad hominems added than I can remember – and I have slung, called and added more, myself.

Usually, somewhere in the slinging, questions of civility are raised. What has happened to our ability to listen to one another?

What I’m wondering lately, though, is how much civility matters. So I called Cornell Clayton, who literally edited a book on civility and politics: “Civility and Democracy in America: A Reasonable Understanding.”

Clayton, the director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, said that civility, while important to a smooth-running society, is not necessarily a problem in terms of democracy.

“Behavior can be both uncivil and democratic at the same time, and that’s the way I would characterize some of the spontaneous demonstrations we’re seeing right now,” Clayton said. “There’s a lot at stake in our politics and people feel that and they’re going to feel passionately about it. The answer is not to say, let’s just be nicer to each other.”

Clayton has often made the case that incivility is a normal and even necessary part of times like these – times of dramatic social, economic and political change – and that by historical standards things have been worse. Nobody settles political arguments with duels these days. He notes that Americans were similarly divided in the 1960s, an era marked by violence and assassinations, as well as major social change.

“We were not only deeply divided as a country, but we were much, much, much less civil than we are today,” he said.

Our divisions are unmistakably deep. Clayton has noted that decades ago there were conservative and liberal members of both parties. Voting records in Congress show those days are long gone – lawmakers of both parties have moved away from the middle, and those on the right have moved farther, he said.

Citizens have become similarly split. Clayton cites statistics about gaps in attitudes among Americans across gender, economic, social and political lines. Between 1987 and 2012, he said, differences between men and women, say, or between rich and poor have essentially stayed stable.

“The only place where the gap has grown is with respect to partisanship,” Clayton said in a lecture he gave at Boise State University in 2014. “What this tells us is our partisan identities, our social identities, are what’s driving this divide.”

Lots of folks suggest that civility, in and of itself, can be an answer to the problem of divisiveness – that by merely listening more, by sitting down together, by granting good faith to your opponent, the divide can be dissolved.

Clayton argues that incivility is a symptom, not the disease, and it does not play only a negative role. When groups are powerless, or perceive themselves to be, the norms of civility can be an obstacle to justice. Both the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements grew out of such tension.

“It’s really part of the democratic process,” he said. “It’s part of the way democracy resolves deep divisions.”

Clayton compares the current moment to the 1880s and 1890s – another period of intense disruption and disagreement about the future of the country, marked by economic, social and demographic changes. But there have been similar periods throughout history where people were closely and deeply divided – when things matter most, when people care most, that’s when people get mad.

For better or worse, it’s a mad time. Clayton said that throughout history, times like these give way to more peaceful political periods – but it doesn’t usually happen via bipartisanship and peace talks. Typically, one party or the other claims the middle.

“The way polarization has always ended in the past is one side wins,” he said. “Eventually.”

More from this author