Among the overworked buzzwords of the past several years have been “civility” and “civil society”. Civility in my context here is taken to mean the highly desirable tone and demeanor with which political discourse and debate are pursued and has even had implications for the newly created virtue of “bipartisanship”. Civil society has been defined by my leading authority on the subject, Don Eberly of The Civil Society Project, as “a third sector of society made up of associations that operate neither on the principle of coercion nor the principle of rational self-interest.” A common thread here would seem to be represented by the question (to paraphrase Rodney King), “can’t we all just get along?”
I have several thoughts about these terms and their recently popularized meaning. First, I agree with Justice Clarence Thomas that, although incivility in our discourse and manner can never be excused, civility cannot be the governing principle of citizenship or leadership and that to insist on this principle has the “perverse effect of cannibalizing our civic principles.” Likewise, Gertrude Himmelfarb observes “to reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the good neighbor idea, is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen but also the virtues expected of the citizen—the civic virtues.” The civic virtues to which she refers are those of the civic republic on which this country was founded (by fiercely partisan men, I might add).
As for civil society, Robert Bellah has written extensively on the attributes of the “good society”, a closely related term originally coined by Walter Lippmann, the cultivation of which he says requires a widening of democratic participation and the accountability of our institutions to counteract predatory relations among individuals and groups. To Bellah and other communitarians, we seem to suffer from too much individualism and self-interest and need to find renewed “respect for what transcends us.” Don Eberly offers the Golden Rule as a principle that might serve as the basis for the moral framework of a civil society. As he points out, there is remarkable unanimity across a broad spectrum of cultures regarding what philosophy calls “the good”, defined primarily by a natural law grounded in almost all the world’s religions.
I sympathize with these communitarian sentiments, and a Golden Rule movement as envisioned by Eberly would certainly be a commendable effort worthy of our support. But I wonder if the seeds for such a movement are present. In a highly litigious and procedural society closely monitored by the state that struggles with an idea as basic as the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms and courtrooms, I think we have some work to do with our opinion leadership and our cultural institutions. And as William Bennett has noted, “there is the belief among many of the people who have the most power and influence to shape attitudes that the most important obligation in life is to yourself, not God, country, work, or family, but to self.” This attitude primarily comes from our intellectuals, our cultural institutions, and from contemporary liberalism. And, to return to Thomas and Himmelfarb, these will not be converted by an overriding commitment to civility as a governing principle.
National Review noted earlier this year that, according to Ted Kaczynski’s files, almost all the mainstream media talk show outlets wanted to provide a forum for the Unabomber, treating him as a profound thinker as well as a murderer. And Forbes Magazine passed along this quote from Ed Turner: “If we had the right technology back then, you would have seen Eva Braun on the Donahue Show and Adolf Hitler on Meet The Press.” Although by no means a direct analogy, some of my faith in the limits of the American consumer’s appetite for pop cultural trash was restored with the complete failure of the XFL. Maybe with this bomb we have finally reached the maximum to which mainstream prime time TV will lower itself to appeal to the basest of viewer instincts……..naah, the World Wrestling Federation is stronger than ever.
The Jeffords Switch: Change Or Clarification?
Count me as one of those who believe that James Jeffords’ departure from the Republican Party is an almost unalloyed positive. Whether or not it ultimately works to the benefit of President Bush and his agenda depends on the administration’s response. I believe the correct one should be (1) to realize that nominal control of the Senate had provided a false sense of security, (2) to stiffen the resolve to deal directly with the American people on the substance of policy, and (3) to rededicate the leadership style to transformational strategy as opposed to transactional strategy.
The Jeffords move (and there will be more, in both directions) was largely a clarification of facts long since apparent. The election of Bush has served to heighten the relief of the diametrically opposed philosophies of the two major parties. As Newt Gingrich has pointed out, there has already been a shift from the public presumption of the Left’s moral superiority in education, health care, and Social Security, and there is a real opportunity to accomplish the same in environmental policy. But as I indicated in the July 2000 issue, transactional and managerial leadership will not be enough. Bush must be even more transformational in his thinking and intensify his appeal directly to the American people on the philosophical essences of his policy agenda. “Transactionalism”, deal making, and appeasement will appeal to the media, but will fail. Sure, there will be a need for a certain amount of “triangulation”, to borrow a Clintonesque term, but the direct approach is much preferable to the inside game.
One area in which Bush must be particularly bold is with judicial appointments. He must not waver in his commitment to strict constructionism. The problem with the present Federal judiciary as it relates to transformation is that the principle of stare decisis, or precedent, is now construed to apply to the results of the era of the hyperactive liberal construction of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is in this arena in which the battle will be most intense and in which the case must be made most effectively to the country. I said last October that the election would be about who we are. So let the games begin.
In a recent appearance on Meet The Press, Sen. John Kerrey outlined his opposition to plans for a missile defense system as follows: That they have not been discussed on a mutual basis among nations through the United Nations and related forums, but are being developed unilaterally; that the approach of the Bush administration is provocative to potential adversaries who will respond by committing resources to finding ways around the defense; and that we should not gut the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. This, in a capsule, defines the philosophy of the multilateral internationalists as opposed to an internationalism based on American exceptionalism that should be at the heart of American defense policy. An additional objection to a missile defense system has it that we have not yet proven that it works. By this reasoning, John Kennedy was foolish in his 1961 commitment to land a man on the moon. But the most antiquated objection is the defense of the ABM Treaty, a 1972 relic with no legal standing, executed with a regime that no longer exists and which commits us to a porous “arms control” approach to nuclear threats. As usual, Lady Margaret Thatcher has it right: “On this (European) side of the Atlantic, there is a tendency to suggest that the problem of proliferation can be solved by diplomatic means and by control regimes designed to halt the flow of military technology. The possibilities were always much slimmer than the optimists thought. Now they are all but a dead letter.” One source of delay in developing the system is the fear of upsetting Russia and China, the same fear that paralyzed doves during the Cold War. Thanks to the boldness of Reagan, Thatcher, and the now defunct Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, we won that one, remember?
If you want an easily readable and lively couple of hundred pages on our cultural dilemma, I recommend Lynne Cheney’s 1995 book, Telling The Truth. In it, she takes on multiculturalism, radical feminism, critical race theory, political correctness in its various forms, and other postmodern trends that have undermined our cultural, political, and educational institutions. She demonstrates how the disdain for moral and intellectual truth have severely damaged our institutions and impoverished our people and she challenges her opponents to disprove her conclusions. A compelling read.