Nick Romanow - The Texas Orator | University of Texas at Austin
When Donald J. Trump surpassed 270 electoral votes in November of 2016, a broad consensus held that a crisis was imminent. Some predicted that a protectionist trade policy would undercut growth and trigger a massive recession. Others feared his “fire and fury” rhetoric would provoke an adversary and drag the United States into another war. As we reach the halfway (or quarter-way) point of the Trump administration, neither of these claims have come to fruition. However, this chapter of American history has hardly been one of tranquility and will likely continue in tumult. The republic faces a far more fundamental yet nebulous threat: the extinction of civility.
It would be easy to hyperlink to the president’s Twitter feed, bemoan the grammatical and factual atrocities that reside therein, and making sweeping appeals to resist. In fact, this would be too easy. Crises do not emerge overnight nor can they be accurately ascribed to any single individual. The 2008 financial crisis did not materialize in that year nor was it the fault of George W. Bush or his administration. It was the result of a corrupt system, decades of poor policy, and the willful negligence of leadership.
American civil discourse is in a similar state of disrepair. Partisans increasingly view the opposition party as harmful to the country. Marriage across party lines has become taboo. The popular conception of American politics is one of vitriol, self-dealing, and incompetence. Disdain for government is the only common ground left in today’s political climate. There is plenty of blame to go around for this state of affairs. Yet, more important than asking who we should blame is asking what we should do.
The decay of common decency in the public arena is a symptom of the broader erosion of civil society. The scorn shown among leaders in politics, business, and culture has trickled down to the general populace. Saving American civil society requires a total reconfiguration of how Americans perceive leaders, specifically those in government. The word “politician” connotes an aura of sliminess and an unhealthy fixation on power. The United States does not need more leaders in the mold of “politicians.” Rather, “public servants” should be the gold standard. The earliest memory I have of learning about politics is not one of corruption. Rather, it was the story of my great grandfather representing and serving a rural municipality in the Legislative Assembly of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. I shudder to think that an entire generation of children will have Donald Trump as their earliest schema for what a political leader looks like.
The current climate in American politics does not lend itself well to the public servant. No matter how many leaders lay claim to “country over party,” the current system rewards those who can claim partisan purity. Politics has become a zero-sum fight. The Republican majority has become obsessed with undoing the “Obama Legacy.” The Democrats point and shout at every outrageous Trump-centered headline but do little to promote a different vision. What was once a petty tit-for-tat is slowly evolving into a disastrous war of attrition. As the two parties play king of the hill, the rest of us wait helplessly.
What separates a public servant from a politician is a glaringly obvious idea: people matter. However straight-forward that statement seems, it is a fact that is too often taken for granted. Political debate will always be obsessed with values, policies, and morality. The great difficulty lies in keeping discourse grounded in the realities that affect citizens. In other words, we must humanize our debates. When we talk about real people and not demographic groupings or income brackets, we can heighten our sensitivities to the dreams, hopes, and fears of the public. Decency becomes non-negotiable. Whereas polished language was once a strategy to attract voters, it is transformed into a signifier of character in the context of personal conversations.
This does not start and end within the political realm. All are responsible for upholding decency. Recently, the incredibly crass performance by Michelle Wolf at April’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner demonstrates the desertion of decency. Arguably, public figures such as journalists and government officials are fair game to criticism and satire. Yet, Wolf’s targets included others besides the famous and powerful. A joke about a fatal accident involving a Southwest Airlines passenger seemed to disregard the very recent occurrence of a tragic death and the continued existence of a mourning family. It seems that the need to disparage the other side has claimed innocents in the cross-fire. Moreover, how public figures treat each other impacts the everyday interactions between common citizens. When leaders vilify each other, it is not surprising when the rest of us follow suit.
More appalling is the emergence of dehumanization as a tactic. The president has shamelessly exemplified this. Labeling murderous criminals as inhuman is not shockingly egregious, except that’s not what he said. His now infamous “animals” statement did not mention MS-13, gangs, or drug dealers; he simply referred to “people coming into the country” as “animals.” His subsequent clarifications attempt to narrow his condemnation to the MS-13 gang, but this is hardly his first incident of strategic ambiguity. Perhaps this case was no more than an unfortunate choice of words, but like most others in Washington, Trump’s benefit of the doubt is wearing thin.
When we call on leaders to serve the people, we do not call on them to pander. Leadership requires appealing to the better angels of our nature. Instead of provoking resentment, the decent leader builds unity. Additionally, our discourse has been watered down to a concoction of sound bites, half-truths, and talking points. America has become addicted to the opiates of simple answers to complex problems. Simple answers are not truths. Nuance is the essential element to any productive discussion. Without the humility needed to understand each other, the current state of gridlock will persist for the foreseeable future. Truthfulness is more than simply not lying. It requires a radical degree of transparency and openness that encourages the participation of all and combats the systemic apathy found in today’s public arena.
It is easy to normatively argue for what virtues ought to be pursued while ignoring the vices that are misleading public debate. If today’s disarray could be boiled down to any select non-principles, they would be complacency and consolation. The disruptiveness of technology, social media, and mass media has fomented insecurity while emphasizing an obsession with ego. Sparing the tired condemnation of the “selfie generation,” it is important to recognize how politicians attempt to answer, “what’s in it for me?” by utilizing the politics of selfishness, moral relativism, and the status quo.
For elected officials, the standard procedure is to ascribe labels to people, policies, and ideas without serious consideration. How many times has a prominent figure appeared on cable news to decry an influx of “illegals” or a policy of “socialism”? Labels allow politicians to avoid serious discourse based on evidence. Instead of pursuing what the public needs, American leadership has settled for what the public wants. This is the crisis that imperils the American republic.
American civil society is a web of individuals and institutions that is a hallmark of western democracy. In addition to the officials and representatives in government, it includes experts, thought leaders, activists, and advocates who debate one another for the greater benefit of American society. Today, the shining city upon the hill is concerningly dim. Incivility plagues the inner workings of government and perpetuates the state of gridlock found in Congress and the Executive. While the system appears to be broken, the reality lies at the feet of individuals and the choices they make. Citizens should not act on their primal instincts and assail the greater good in exchange for personal consolation. Leaders should avoid the race to the bottom that prioritizes expediency over decency. Democracy is not a nebulous construct that no one really understands. The government of the people, by the people, and for the people rests upon us all. Saving it does as well.