Civility Is a Path Out of Desolation


“If we do not join now, to save the good old ship of the union on this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage.”
— President-Elect Abraham Lincoln February 15, 1861

It is probably not ‘woke’ to quote Lincoln.

San Franciscans are still thinking about scouring his name from schools. Elsewhere his statues are being pulled down like Hussein’s were in Baghdad.

The rail-splitter’s name and legacy are being purged from history by pseudo-progressives who prefer their own version of antebellum and Native American history without the benefit of pertinent facts or an ounce of reason. They’ve concluded Lincoln must go.

Those of Us—also a great band once upon a time in the Great Plains—who came of age in the 60s and 70s try to keep an open mind, but it’s tough. We recall how our elders damned Elvis and his gyrating hips (under their breath, of course) and how we thought they were so out of touch glued to the black and white watching Lawrence Welk. What was with the bubbles?

Now it is we who concern ourselves with the new indoctrination of our children to the evils of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Spanish missionary St. Junipero Serra, and even a World War II hero and founder of Army airborne, Gen. William C. Lee, whose statue was apparently confused with that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

It all seems somewhat senseless, but many of us are self-cautioned not to become our parents. We try to keep an open mind to new ideas and those who speak with tongues alien to us. But after a lot of thought, I can’t get there, especially with Lincoln, to me our greatest President (sorry, George, but you’re still the Father of the Country).

Lincoln made the remark above on his round-about train trip to the Capital for his inauguration just two months before the South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter and lit the powder keg of civil war. Lincoln had it right in 1861 and little has changed in the validity of his outlook in 2021.

The Union is once again being challenged to its core. The threat is not of the magnitude of Lincoln’s time or several eras since, but we should make no mistake about the gravity of our situation and our citizen-responsibilities as stewards of representative democracy in America.

The democratic Republic is in deep doo-doo and those who are tearing it down have nothing to erect in its place but bedlam, political barbarism, and anarchy. Unlike the ancient Greeks, there is no Phoenix to rise from the ashes of anarchical self-destruction. The insurrectionists who stomped through the Capitol in their Halloween costumes bellowing their righteous indignation over that which they have been indoctrinated into believing has been a miscarriage of Trump justice have nothing to offer but destruction and futility. It’s good to remember what House Speaker Sam Rayburn said: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” It’s hard to find a good carpenter in politics these days.

Americans don’t often engage in serious discussion about the demise of the Republic. It has sustained itself longer than any other. Yet in these debilitating times, the discussion is a good and necessary one to have. The slow but steady corrosion of our governmental system and social order has been going on too long.

Unfortunately, we can’t have that talk.

Much of the country is angry or not much inclined to converse with those who are. Those who control the megaphones and bully pulpits aren’t inclined to lower the temperature, either. They are too invested in the anger and division. That must change before we can ever hope to see more daylight in the political and social corners of our lives or see our government restored to an effective and responsible institution.

All of us have to create an atmosphere in which we can talk to each other, trust each other, and give each other an opportunity to be heard and renounce the kind of behavior that has caused so much heartache, destruction, and even death. No ground should be given to the insidious and infectious behavior of those who are too quick to condemn others, too angry to exercise reason, and so blinded by their hate they cannot see through the eyes and feel through the hearts of those with whom they disagree, even those who reside in the same neighborhood or share the same community of interests or even live in the same house.

I sincerely believe that most of our friends, relatives, neighbors, churchgoers, colleagues, and compatriots have good and honest motivation but are resistant to openness because they harbor some wild misconceptions about what others believe or who they think they are. There is even research to back that up. Author Arthur Brooks wrote in the summer of 2019, “…But did you ever stop and ask how much you really know about the other side? Or whether the outrage industry in politics and media is telling you the truth about your fellow Americans who disagree with you politically?“ Most of what we know about the other side is wrong, he wrote, based in part on a new study published by the Journal of Politics. “Today more than 90 percent of both Republicans and Democrats describe people in their own party as ‘honest’, ‘reasonable,’ and ‘caring’. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent in each party describe the other side as ‘brainwashed’ and ‘hateful”, Brooks said.

The problem is that some insist that you’re a sucker if you believe in the goodness of others or are willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. It reflects a culture that will get you canceled in a hurry.

“I get it,” Professor Jonathan Turley told a congressional committee in 2019. “You’re mad. The President’s mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad and Luna is a golden-doodle and they don’t get mad.”

Mad too easily morphs into meanness and ultimately violence, injury, and death. The attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, Lance Morrow wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently, “crossed a line from rhetoric to physical force and mayhem… The open-ended riots in city after city last summer crossed the same line—though they came to be numbly acquiesced in, either as deserved punishment for the knee in George Floyd’s neck or as one more rotten misery in a terrible year. By now, Americans have almost gotten used to the idea of being at war with one another.”

The madness is a virus, for which we have no vaccine and none in production. Public discourse has been muzzled by it. Human behavior has been degraded by anger. Government has been put in a deep freeze gridlock by it. Our pets behave better than we do. Once great institutional pillars of society—our sense of community, values, and spirituality, our charity and generosity, and mutual respect are decomposing in the political dumpsters while so many wallow in ugly moods.

What is also lost in this stormy atmosphere are the legitimate concerns of millions of people who believe that their rights are being denied them, that their representatives don’t pay attention to them, that their human dignity is being insulted, that their way of life is being trivialized, and that the political apparatuses don’t understand them or reflect their views or respond to their demands for change. Those same people are fed up with the inability of government to get anything done. Those people are not captives of the left or right, but captives of the challenges of living that governmental institutions seem too busy to make less burdensome.

I doubt our system of self-government is in imminent danger of collapsing, but what’s the point of playing Russian roulette with an institution so fundamental to our way of life, for which so many have sacrificed over two centuries?

The madness is at the core of overarching incivility, which is a nice term for uncivilized behavior. To borrow from Winston Churchill, it may well be the beginning of the end if we don’t purge it along with what it has wrought.

And what it has wrought is worrisome. The behavioral, intellectual, moral, and ethical disciplines that are absolutely critical to the protection of a free society and democratic self-rule, are being trivialized and often just abandoned. There has not been a campaign to invoke censorship across the landscape of First Amendment rights of the press and free speech in this country since the McCarthy Red scare campaigns of the 1950s, or the Japanese internment camps during World War II, or the suspension of civil freedoms during the Civil War, or the fears of war that produced the Alien and Sedition Acts during the John Adams Administration.

Democratic members of Congress are being clear and threatening in their insistence that technology companies censor media with which they don’t agree. Journalists at the Wall Street Journal are insisting that their newspaper purge editorial commentary that they find offensive. “Woke” writers at the New York Times forced the firing of a senior editor whose tolerance for alternative opinions offended them. The radicalization of the profession is a new reality.

Organizations and activists are insisting that private companies do not hire people who worked in the Trump Administration. Corporations are being boycotted for selling products and services to ‘conservative’ or Trump-affiliated groups or for supporting Trump or Trump Administration programs. Books are being burned. Ugly take-no-prisoners partisanship has become acceptable and even admired political practice and has pushed politics far to the extremes uninhabited by most Americans.

“Academic freedom is in crisis on American campuses. Last year, the National Association of scholars recorded 65 instances of professors being disciplined or fired for protected speech, a fivefold increase from the year before,” writes Eric Kaufmann, author of a new report on diversity, in the Wall Street Journal. “Political discrimination is pervasive: 4 in 10 American academics indicated in a survey…that they would not hire a known Trump supporter…In Canada, the share is 45 percent, while in Britain, 1 in 3 academics wouldn’t hire a Brexit supporter.”

Incivility must be dealt with before we can take on other equally daunting institutional failures such as total government gridlock, the state of our political parties, and the transformation of the news media. There are as we all know just a few crises populating our national agenda, from stewardship of the environment to national infrastructure, to securing our borders, rebuilding quality education, addressing inequality, and providing far greater cybersecurity. Did I mention energy security and improving access to health care? I also forgot the national economy. But who’s keeping score? Unfortunately, no one.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.