More Civility Confusion: Jon Huntsman’s Announcement


"Oh, NO...not THAT!"

To listen to the contempt and outrage expressed by conservative critics of Jon Huntsman’s official presidential campaign kick-off yesterday, one might have thought that he had pledged to conduct his quest for the presidency in Arabic. No, what infuriated Rich and Sean and Mark and the rightward bloggers who adore them is that he pledged…to be civil. Huntsman said:

“Now let me say something about civility. For the sake of the younger generation, it concerns me that civility, humanity and respect are sometimes lost in our interactions as Americans. Our political debates today are corrosive and not reflective of the belief that Abe Lincoln espoused back in his day, that we are a great country because we are a good country. You know what I mean when I say that. We will conduct this campaign on the high road. I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the Office of President. Of course we’ll have our disagreements. That’s what campaigns are all about. But I want you to know that I respect my fellow Republican candidates. And I respect the President of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better President; not who’s the better American.”

The horror…Apparently Huntsman’s critics think that civility means abject surrender, or that he is falling for the trap set by the “No-Labels” crowd, which essentially embraces the position that when Republicans describe Democrats in critical terms, that’s incivility, while Democrats insulting Republicans (as when “No-Limits” co-founder John Avlon refers to Michele Bachman, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum as “wingnuts”) is just telling the truth. What’s going on here?

The Democratic and liberal media’s January efforts to censor Sarah Palin and other conservatives by falsely labeling their tough rhetoric as uncivil and somehow responsible for Jared Loughner’s  shooting spree has managed to render both parties incapable of recognizing what civil and uncivil discourse is. Civility requires a bedrock of respect, honesty and fairness. It does not preclude criticism, even harsh criticism, controversial opinions or even personal characterizations if they are supported by facts. Civility precludes words that are hateful, cruel, mean-spirited, designed to hurt, designed to deceive, or calculated to stir up irrational passions. Not one word of Huntsman’s promise to be civil in any way requires him to avoid making his best case for himself and against President Obama powerfully and persuasively. Being civil is not a disadvantage for any candidate with intelligence, wit, and something to say. Incivility is the recourse of bullies, demagogues and inarticulate clods…and talk radio hosts, of course.

Rush Limbaugh played recordings of Ronald Reagan’s indictment against Jimmy Carter when Reagan announced his candidacy, supposedly to show that Reagan won because he wasn’t shackled by fealty to civility standards. Rush was way off the mark here. Reagan’s critique was hard as nails, but there wasn’t anything uncivil about it, except perhaps by the self-serving standards of “No-Labels” types. Reagan made his case that Jimmy Carter was an awful President whose policies were devastating the country. That’s not incivility.

Uncivil: “Republicans want you to die.”
Civil: “Republicans would rather eliminate social programs for the desperate and weak than raise taxes on billionaires.”

Uncivil: “Obama wants America to be a second-class nation.”
Civil: “Obama’s policies will make America a second-class nation.”

Uncivil: “Bush is an idiot.”
Civil: “Bush doesn’t understand the needs of ordinary Americans.”

Uncivil: “Barack Hussein Obama is on the side of the Islamist radicals who would destroy us.”
Civil: “Barack Obama’s policies make America vulnerable to terrorists.”

Uncivil: Placing a noose symbolizing lynching outside Obama campaign headquarters.
Civil:  Placing crosshairs symbolizing targeted democratic districts on a campaign map.

In no pairing is the incivility appropriate in a civilized campaign, nor are the use of the civil examples incompatible with basic respect and fairness as well as zealous campaign advocacy, whether one agrees with the opinions they express or not.

This really isn’t that hard. Both Obama and McCain ran predominantly civil campaigns in 2008, though both also had agents, ads and surrogates who crossed the line into incivility on occasion. Every candidate should be able to endorse Huntsman’s words. When civility, a core ethical value, comes to be regarded as a political liability, civilization itself is in peril. Huntsman was right. Those who are criticizing him are as unethical as they are uncivil.

One thought on “More Civility Confusion: Jon Huntsman’s Announcement

  1. Pingback: What Does Civility in Politics Look Like, and Where Does it Come From?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.