Considering Political Civility Historically

Once again, in 2018, we are debating civility and its place in American politics. It has not been very long since the last time we had serious worries about a “civility crisis” — in the late 1990s, but a lack of civility seems less a rupture and more a fundamental part of political style today, and it is dividing Republicans from Republicans and Democrats from Democrats. By mid-summer of 2018, the calls of, “they do it, so we should too” are ringing loud and clear. But once again, this discussion is not widely framed by a historical understanding of civility (and the lack thereof) in American politics. Civility is not just being nice or polite. It is not just window dressing. The question of civility is fundamental to an understanding of political communication in a divided and unequal world.

There are quite a few very good works to consult. I recommend William Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensville, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom;  Susan Herbst, Rude Democracy; John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America; Nancy K. MacLean, Behind the Mask of Civility: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan as a few that are explicitly historical in their outlook. And there are many works on civility that take other frameworks.

In addition, I offer my working paper, “Considering Civility Historically: A Case Study of the United States.”  It was written during a different “crisis of civility,” and shows its age, but the core is, I think, still useful to help us treat this concept and phenomenon with due seriousness.

See: Considering Civility