Donald Trump seems to think civility is for losers. The candidate he defeated in the 2016 presidential election, by contrast, argues that civility is for winners.
“I would love to see us return to civility,” Hillary Clinton told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday. Unfortunately, she added, that won’t be possible until the Democrats return to power. “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about,” she said. “That’s why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and/or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”
The problem, Clinton explained, is that Republicans in Congress have abused their power and treated Democrats shabbily, which is something Democrats would never do to Republicans. Unlike the Democrats, you see, the Republicans are “an ideological party that is driven by the lust for power.” Trump may be comically lacking in self-awareness, but Clinton gives him a run for his money in her own drearily self-righteous way.
Clinton’s comments drew a rebuke from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). “That’s ridiculous,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday evening. “I can’t imagine how you get anything done if you don’t bring civility back into politics, and that goes for both sides.” Maybe Heitkamp is just a nicer person than Clinton, but I suspect her evenhandedness has something to do with the fact that she is up for re-election in a state that went for Trump by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
If incivility prevents Congress from getting things done, that may count in its favor, since most of what Congress does—especially when it attracts broad, bipartisan support—is either not worth doing or positively pernicious. Then again, there is a case to be made that some worthwhile projects, such as spending cuts and entitlement reform, can be accomplished only with a certain amount of interparty trust.
But the case for civility goes beyond getting bills passed. Treating political opponents as mortal enemies is a recipe for constant rancor and strife. It invites people to view themselves as morally superior, to abandon principle when it benefits the other side, and to automatically dismiss ideas espoused by members of the wrong tribe. Ultimately, if people take seriously the idea that everything they care about is on the line, it invites violence.
Clinton’s idea of civility—the grace that good people with power deign to grant their defeated and benighted opponents—reminds me of Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, the smug Sacha Baron Cohen character who sees his mission as “listening respectfully, without prejudice, to Republicans, with the hope of changing their racist and childish views.” But when she says “you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for,” she demonstrates an even more disturbing failure of empathy, since she denies the possibility that people may sincerely disagree with her for what they take to be good reasons and may therefore think she is trying to destroy what they stand for. If civility is out of the question in that situation, peaceful and rational debate is impossible.