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As pundits and conservatives scold the left and those happy that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service for her personal participation in the Trump administration and their ongoing morally bankrupt actions, the concepts of tone policing and “civility” become critical. Anyone calling for “civility” from those expressing outrage over the nation’s descent into illiberal democracy (or worse, autocracy) enables those in power to incrementally achieve their goals.
Those seeking to destabilize liberal democracy count on these calls to be nice to liars and oppressors. They require complacency and consternation over people’s outrage (not over the actual atrocities that sparked that initial outrage) to maintain that descent.
In short, those asking people to calm down, to treat the Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ of the Trump administration cordially – as they rip families apart, defecate on norms, openly lobby for discriminatory policies and laws that will materially harm Americans, and worse – are no better than sycophantic supporters that would (as Trump repeatedly argued) still support him if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue.
Sanders’ Service Refusal
Let’s be clear: it was neither unethical nor illegal for the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave. In fact, using the current administration’s own explicit, stated policies on the subject, the owner was within her right to deny Sanders her meal.
Explaining why she asked Sanders to leave, owner Stephanie Wilkinson told the Washington Post she believed Sanders worked for an “inhumane and unethical” administration. “This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals,” she said.
After pulling Sanders aside to speak privately, she reportedly said, “I was babbling a little, but I got my point across in a polite and direct fashion.” Wilkinson added, “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.
“I said, ‘I’d like to ask you to leave.’ ”
Thereafter, Sanders illegally used her official Press Secretary Twitter account to launch a national attack on the business:
Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so
Since then, more people across the nation have been issuing calls for concern and civility over a Trump administration member being legally denied service than most LGBTQ couples denied cakes and flowers combined. And those denials actually violated the law.
And this is all despite the owner having done so out of explicitly stated, sincerely held belief – a “right” Sanders has publicly argued in favor of for business owners.
Calls For Civility
Everyone from conservative media pundits to the Washington Post editorial board has called for “civility” in the wake of the Red Hen event. Each of the calls implores the left to be more polite, not raise their voices, and to just let Trump officials “eat in peace.” They’re tone policing those outraged over the moral atrocities continually committed by members of the Trump administration.
Writing for USA Today, columnist Jason Sattler broke it down:
The guardians of civility prophesy that sense can overwhelm a regime holding thousands of children hostages from their parents until the parents agree to return as a family to the country they fled in fear for their lives. They are sure that politeness is the only way to oppose an administration that is inventing new law in an attempt to give tens of millions of Americans their pre-existing conditions back, likely making cancer patients uninsurable. Civility, they insist, is required to counter an administration that won’t even make a serious attempt to count how many Americans died due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where thousands are still without power as hurricane season has begun again.
Similarly, Vox writer David Roberts had a few thoughts to offer on the subject:
1. Unsurprisingly, this bit of kneejerk onanism from the WaPo editorial board completely misses the significance of this whole episode. In fact, it gets it wrong in exactly the same way Very Serious People have been getting in wrong in DC for decades.
Editorial from @washingtonpost: Let the Trump team eat in peace https://wapo.st/2tq4tlh
2. The salient fact about US politics is that the right has been going steadily more crazy for decades — breaking the law, disregarding norms, sinking into a hermetically sealed media bubble filled with paranoid conspiracy theories, seeking to disenfranchise opponents, etc.
3. At every stage, it gets worse. Norms & values we thought inviolate are crapped on, lawlessness becomes more brazen, ugly prejudices we thought buried, or at least suppressed, roar back to the surface. And with every increment, the question re-presents itself:
4. What should the rest of us do? The ~25% of Americans who believe & want horrible, illiberal shit (“deplorables,” you might call them) have taken over the GOP. They are driving it toward fascism as fast as the system will allow them. What’s the right response?
5. For years, lefties have been warning about this devolution of the GOP, going back to Reagan. They have bene dismissed as crazy partisan hippies, condemned as “uncivil,” told they are part of the problem, because being mad about illiberalism is just like illiberalism.
6. The question has always been, where do you draw the line? At what point in the GOP’s devolution do we say: OK, that’s too far. We’re no longer in Normal Politics. We’re in a crisis situation, on the verge of losing our democracy. Where is the line?
7. The most insidious thing about the descent into illiberalism is that it is incremental. There’s no dramatic moment, no Rubicon. Every step seems bad, but only a little worse than the previous step. Smart autocrats are careful not to provide that moment.
8. As this slide into illiberalism has continued, the mainstream DC establishment, including the sorts of Very Serious People that write major newspaper editorials, have *helped prevent that moment*. They have normalized, normalized, normalized, greasing the skids.
9. When lefties have tried to draw a line, create a moment, force a reckoning, the establishment has united in a single voice to say: calm down. Let’s be civil & work together. Let’s not raise our voices or be shrill. Both sides do it. We’re still in Normal Politics.
11. By jailing toddlers, Trump has potentially made a mistake. Instead of incremental illiberalism, this seems like a jump, something to shock the conscience. It is yet another opportunity for a Moment, a time for the rest of us to say: no. This is not normal. It’s not ok.
12. That what’s the owner of the Red Hen was doing by refusing to serve Sanders: saying, No. This is not just a normal political dispute that can remain confined to the political sphere. You cannot support this & still expect to be treated like a normal, decent person.
13. The owner was trying to draw a line, disrupt the normal daily patterns of civility & accommodation, create a Moment around which people can rally to echo the message: No. This is not normal, not “just politics.” We must stop pretending it is; we must snap out of hypnosis.
15. WaPo editors say that accepting incivility (gasp) is a “slippery slope.” But that gets it exactly wrong. WE ARE ALREADY ON THE SLIPPERY SLOPE. It’s a slope that leads to illiberalism, violence, & collapse. It’s a slope greased accommodation & civility.
16. What the Red Hen owner (& others) are trying to do is jerk us awake, push of OFF the slippery slope. They’re trying desperately to draw a line, to cease the slide. And every time they try — even now, even to this day, even with toddlers in cages — the MSM scolds them.
17. The Very Serious People who serve as tone police in DC need to decide what they value more: democracy or civility. Because we’re just sliding, sliding, sliding down this slope, pretending all the while that things are still Normal. To get off the slide …
18. … will, almost by definition, require a break with Normal. It will require some sand in the gears, some raised voices, some violations of decorum and precedent. I dunno if restaurant service is the right mechanism, or even a good one. No one knows.
19. The WaPo editorial board, like the MSM establishment more generally, has been utterly fucking useless in slowing our slide to illiberalism. They’ve done nothing but obscure what’s happening behind a veneer of Normal. They have failed. But for the luvagod …
20. … the very least they can do is refrain from concern trolling citizens who are (RIGHTLY) in a panic about the loss of their country. Maybe the agents of this cruelty, the ones lying on its behalf, should feel a little discomfort. There are worse things in the world. </fin>
The crux of Roberts’ tweetstorm is incrementalism – that tone policing those outraged over each new atrocity prevents the kind of reckoning needed when an administration like the current one crosses the line.
Rather than seize this moment and allow those outraged over the jailing of children and babies as a presidential policy to express their discontent in a legal, expressive manner, people are shaming a private business owner for ejecting a member of Trump’s administration from a restaurant. Rather than discuss the erosion of women’s, LGBTQ and other minority rights under an administration hellbent on rolling back any and all regulations and protections – even if it means people get cancer from asbestos exposure – people are falsely comparing Sanders’ ejection to LGBTQ couples being denied service, arguing she was discriminated against.
Writing for his news platform News and Guts, Dan Rather argued this week:
President Trump and the GOP bemoaning a lack of civility is a hypocritical farce. It spurs an almost uncontrollable bout of forehead-slapping in disbelief.
But let’s be clear about what incivility really looks like:
Incivility is lying to impugn the citizenship of the first African American president.
Incivility is threatening and mocking reporters and attacking the First Amendment protections of our free and independent press.
Incivility is destroying the environment and ignoring climate change.
Incivility is countenancing corruption and venality in the highest reaches of the White House and its cabinet.
Incivility is our government’s response to Puerto Rico.
Incivility is undermining a merited investigation by respected law enforcement officials and maligning the notion of an independent judiciary.
Incivility is cozying up to dictators and attacking our allies and friends.
Incivility is ripping children – even those too young to know their parent’s name – from immigrants legally claiming asylum.
Incivility is endeavoring to have millions of Americans lose their health insurance.
Incivility is creating a false equivalence between Nazis and counter-protesters.
Incivility is using peaceful dissent from NFL players as a pretense for stirring the deep waters of racial injustice.
Incivility is using Twitter to lie and bully.
Incivility is just having the pathology to constantly lie in the first place.
Incivility is gaslighting your fellow citizens on issues big and small.
Incivility is trying to bar entry to the United States on account of religion.
Incivility is ignoring science and reason.
Incivility is trying to run roughshod over our constitutional protections.
These are but a few of the real incivilities that plague our moment in history. They are the actions of a man and his enablers who feel no compunction about destroying the bonds that have held this improbable nation together. We will only succeed if we have a civil society. And anything or anyone who attacks that cherished American ideal must be considered… uncivil.
The problem with tone policing outrage over the current administration and calling for “civility” in the face of mounting illiberal policies lies in its effectiveness. That is, ‘civility’ does nothing when the mere act of being civil or friendly is viewed as a weakness by an oppressive government majority.
We know that because oppressors have made this clear throughout history.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a lot to say about oppression and civility. One statement sticks out though offering a historical view of what it means when oppressors demand civility.
In his famous 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King spoke explicitly about the topic when responding to pleas from white clergy members for ‘civility’ in the fight to overcome racial and economic injustice. Those white clergy members weren’t unlike Trump supporters. To wit, they said in part:
We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.
Stop angrily protesting! Be civil while the white-dominated courts and Jim Crow laws “peacefully” take care of the matter.
“Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well-timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation,” King wrote, responding to the calls for civility rather than protest. “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’…This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’”
He added, “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”
He went on to argue that “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
These passages from one of the most important guides to civil rights applies now more than ever. An administration that destroys norms, circumvents the law and lies as a matter of practice can’t be opposed with friendly gestures or polite overtones over afternoon tea and biscuits.
Those calling for civility – especially those in mainstream media positions – should remember King’s words to white moderates.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’…
He added, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Whether it stems from historical ignorance or a lack of understanding, calls for ‘civility’ are neither new nor productive, especially when liberal democracy is at stake.
Illiberal democracy – both an accurate descriptor as well as an oxymoron – occurs when democracies cease to be fully functional. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria actually hit the nail on the head more than two decades ago in his 1997 essay, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.”
“From Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life — illiberal democracy,” Zakaria wrote.
“It has been difficult to recognize this problem because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy — a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms — what might be termed constitutional liberalism — is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.”
Revisiting that essay in the Trump era, he sat down with Vox last summer.
Referring to American political and legal norms, he explicitly noted concern over the United States’ recent turn in bending and frequently outright tramping on norms by the current administration. “One of the things I worry about, and this very much came out of the essay I wrote, is how to make sense of American democracy, which is clearly a liberal democracy but one in which the liberal elements have always been sustained by many informal mechanisms,” he said.
He later added:
“My concern is precisely that the checks that the founders baked into the system have gradually eroded. Let’s remember that the founders put in very strong checks against tyrannical majoritarianism: The Senate was not directly elected, the electors were meant to curb demagogic characters, and so on. All of that has gone away, along with the informal nongovernmental and nonpolitical buffers, and so when you look around for the checks today, it’s not clear where they are or if they exist at all.”
“What we’re really talking about here is a decline of institutions across the board,” Zarakria said, describing the current state of U.S. democracy succinctly.
Further defining the problem using the Sanders debacle as a lens, Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp offered his thoughts:
To understand what Sanders’s defenders are getting wrong about the dinner incident, let’s get straight on the difference between “incivility” in politics and simple rudeness. Our guide here will be John Rawls, by all accounts the greatest American political philosopher of the 20th century.
A major topic of Rawls’s work was the problem of political disagreement: How is it possible to have a democracy, a government allegedly for and by the people, when people disagree so much among themselves? Rawls attempted to answer this question in one of his major works, an extremely long tome titled Political Liberalism.
The core of his answer, to simplify it dramatically, is that democracy depends on a certain set of principles that almost everyone agrees with. These are principles that only “reasonable” people (not Nazis, for example) can accept — ideas like “all citizens deserve to be treated equally” and “it’s wrong to imprison people on the basis of faith.”
Which is to say, in order to function properly, a liberal democracy requires norms. It requires experienced, truthful, and rational actors in its leadership. When that system breaks down – when lies and manipulation become a feature rather than a bug – that system begins to break down.
“The Trump administration is attacking the very heart of a democratic political system. And Sanders, by aggressively repeating and defending Trump’s lies, is a vital part of this machine,” Beauchamp noted. He added, “Voters have a responsibility to confront incivility that threatens democracy rather than to prioritize treating officials super politely.”
When Wilkinson spoke to the Washington Post, she explicitly said she ejected Sanders using this reasoning. She engaged in constitutionally protected speech and expression aimed at criticizing the government. And that gesture served its purpose in shaming Sanders enough to where she committed a crime in using her official Twitter account to launch an attack on Red Hen.
She ejected no other customers – liberal or conservative – based on their viewpoints.
Beauchamp touched on this.
“Wilkinson also told the Post this crucial point — that she did what she did because Sanders was a public official and that she has regular customers who are politically conservative and has no problem serving them. Fantasies of separate restaurants for Democrats and Republicans are just that: fantasies.
“Wilkinson acted to punish a political official for a specific set of severe wrongs, not to harm an average customer whose political views she happened to disagree with. A slippery slope to politically segregated dining, this is not.”
Had Sanders not chosen to violate the law and use her official account to ‘punish’ a restaurant owner for using her free speech rights to make a statement about the current administration, no one would have been the wiser – especially since she took care to pull her aside so no one could hear their conversation. It was Sanders’ bruised feelings that led to national outcry and calls for ‘civility’ for members of an administration that sees fit to defend jailing toddlers and babies.
Her statement is a critical expression of dissatisfaction in a moment in history when the average American has very little control or input into a system controlled primarily by special interests and corporate money. And that protest statement comes at a time when most citizens have no other critical outlet that can reach Republicans like Sanders as they’ve walled themselves off from the public (and sometimes even from reporters).
Beauchamp described her act of protest perfectly when he said, “The United States is in the middle of a particular type of political emergency: the failure of American civil discourse as a democratic practice. A little impoliteness, of the right kind, might help to restore it.”