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The Politics of Civility

by John H. Summers on May 21, 1998

In his latest book, “Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy,” Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter joins a chorus of indignant critics who lament the “uncivil” nature of our recent political debates. For Carter and others, attacks on the personal character of politicians betray rampant “disrespect” for leaders. Establishing an “etiquette” for public life, they promise, will repair our wayward democracy.

Carter should stop preaching and learn more American history. The last successful effort to insulate politicians from personal assaults heralded the decay of democratic culture and the rise of elitist notions of government.

From the very beginning of the republic, political criticism trained its fire on the private character of elected officials. During the 1780s and 1790s, while John Adams counseled “Decency, and Respect, and Veneration . . . . for Persons in Authority,” traditional notions of deference for leaders began to recede.

In their place emerged a fierce brand of political combat that regarded private life as a legitimate field of battle. In fact, for much of the next century, virtually every important American political figure — from Thomas Jefferson to Grover Cleveland — suffered from allegations of illegitimacy, drunkenness or sexual misbehavior.

One northern newspaper, for instance, depicted Andrew Johnson as “a drunken boor,” “an insolent, vulgar, low-bred brute,” a man “not so respectable as Caligula’s horse.” In 1884, upon revelations that Grover Cleveland had once fathered an illegitimate child, outraged citizens branded him a “moral leper,” a “gross and licentious man,” and “a wretch unworthy of respect or confidence.”

The emergence of a fervently partisan, two-party system during the nineteenth century gave wide circulation to moral indiscretions. But the intense scrutiny directed at personal morality stemmed from a shared belief, professed by evangelical Protestants and less-observant Christians alike: that a just and orderly polity demanded evidence of private, as well as public, virtue. After the campaign of 1884 — perhaps the most abusive in our history – a period more familiar to today’s voters began to unfold, as revelations of moral turpitude steadily retreated from public culture.

William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson  escaped from the sort of humiliation visited on Grover Cleveland. Neither did insiders remark openly about Warren Harding’s habitual adultery, even though news of his illegitimate child traveled wildly about Washington salons and congressional offices.

From the ascendancy of Franklin Roosevelt until revelations of Gary Hart’s adultery in 1988, moreover, reticence largely held sway – a firmly entrenched principle of twentieth-century political culture. Contemporary critics like Stephen Carter, who wax nostalgic about this era, rarely understand the elitism that underwrote it.

The emergence of reticence about the moral indiscretions of major politicians did not signal the growing respectability of professional journalism. Reporters continued to gossip unflatteringly about celebrities and sports figures. Neither did it reveal a declining importance of personal character to political life.  Candidates still offered themselves to voters as men of integrity, honor and judgment.

Rather, the disappearance of the unseemly side of the character question reflected the pursuit by professional journalists of a politics of insulation.Twentieth-century politicians were protected, that is, because journalists concluded that all forms of governmental decision-making required insulation from a mobbish and irrational public.

Most forcefully articulated in the 1920s by critics such as Walter Lippmann, this elite-centered model of democracy celebrated the role of experts and specialists in political life. It regarded voters not as citizens with a stake in discerning the character of their leaders, but instead as easily manipulable commodities whose penchant for irrational judgment required guidance and control.

The new protection afforded private life thus became only one aspect of a larger endeavor by professionals to protect all operations of government frompopular scrutiny.

The writings of Stephen Carter and other self-proclaimed saviors of civilization reflect attempts to resurrect the politics of insulation. We should resist such efforts. For, like their forebears, today’s elites are more interested in controlling the supposedly degraded appetite of “barbarians” (as Carter characterizes contemporary voters) than in promoting democracy.

Should the advocates of civility care genuinely about democratic culture and all its implications, they might revisit 19th-century assumptions about personal character as a field of turbulent political debate. Far from alienating voters, this so-called “polluted” polity attracted the greatest levels of political participation in American history.

They might, too, recollect that the emergence of reticence in this century was the work of a group of professional journalists whose efforts paralleled the mass withdrawal of voters from the electorate, the reintroduction of hierarchy in American politics and the steadily increasing power of the presidency.


John H. Summers, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Rochester and assistant editor of the Blackout History Project , is a writer for the History News Service.