I have given some thought to calling one of those attorneys who typically advertise on the back of the Yellow Pages because I have been suffering from a severe case of whiplash. Less than a month removed from widely condemned remarks supporting the President’s call for American-born Congresswomen to leave the country, Steve Daines has spent the past few days ducking open forums and demanding more civility in American politics.
In remarks to a paid audience at the City Club in Missoula, Daines wistfully talked about the good old days when Republicans and Democrats could get along with one another, noting that we need to have more dialogue:
Daines said many people are living in their own “echo chamber.” “The concern I have is friendships are being lost,” he said. “I grew up friends with Democrats. It’s not a good thing for this country. It truly isn’t. The more we can facilitate back-and-forth dialogue, we’ll be better off as a country as opposed to sitting back and screaming.”
Putting aside the irony of Daines, who refuses to meet with constituents, preferring the comforts of pre-screened questions at telephone town halls and events like the moderated City Club meeting, calling for more “back and forth,” it’s hard not to find fault with Daines lecturing anyone about civility.
Daines not only backed the President’s racist remarks in July but actually fundraised on them, paying to promote tweets like this after the President’s remarks:
We are sick and tired of listening to anti- American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals. Do you agree?
“We have shown the world time and time again the genius of American ingenuity and the grit of American determination. However, a radical, socialist, far-left movement is growing across this country. And it has taken root as the new voice of the Democratic Party.”
Real calls for civility and respectful “back and forth discussion” there. And perhaps some of you have better memory than I do, but I certainly don’t remember Representative or Senator Daines demanding more civility from the Republicans who routinely engaged in the vilest racism directed at the Obama family or sexism directed at Secretary Clinton.
Daines, of course, has no interest in civility. He just doesn’t want to hear criticism. If the Senator who called Obama a tyrant, who silenced Elizabeth Warren, who backs reporter-assaulting Greg Gianforte, and who backs the President, despite his repeated racist, sexist, and misogynistic remarks was truly interested in restoring civility, he’d demand it of himself first, his party second.
Then he could turn his attention to the rest of us.
We should also cast a more critical eye on the idea that civility is necessarily virtuous. When wielded by those in power, calls for civility are often cudgels to silence those with legitimate grievances, like the white ministers who demanded that Martin Luther King not protest in Birmingham. As political theorist Teresa Bejan notes:
These critics view a call for “civility” not as an exhortation to virtue but a covert demand for conformity that delegitimizes dissent while reinforcing the status quo. It functions as nothing more than a rhetorical ploy meant to set up the speaker as a model of decorum and silence anyone else with the temerity to disagree. In the immortal words of Ring Lardner: “Shut up, he explained.”
Republicans, who have super-charged the political rhetoric in the country for a generation through Fox News, talk radio, and sites like Breitbart are worse than disingenuous when they call for civility; they’re using calls for it to silence those who want to raise their voices against injustice.
When the President is drafting policy that is literally killing children at the border, when he’s using racist and xenophobic rhetoric that inspires mass killers, and when the Republican elite is using its power to impoverish our communities and enrich themselves, their calls for civility are calls for submission.
If Senator Daines truly wants civility, he needs to go back to Bejan, who notes that the Latin root of civility means something quite different than constituents not criticizing him; it means governing well:
While its origins can be traced to the Latin civilitas, as the art of good citizenship or government, the evolving and overlapping valences of the term have become difficult to disentangle.
If Senator Daines truly believes in improving American politics and preserving bipartisan friendships, that’s where he needs to start: with good government. And listening to us–not telling us to shut up–would be an excellent place to start.