With self-congratulatory fanfare, local politicians recently adopted a “civility code.” Given the sorry state of American government at every level, that’s like putting lotion on a skin cancer.
It may soothe the irritation, but it does nothing to cure the disease. Unless the cancer is removed, its metastasis bodes ill for our body politic.
As Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times puts it, “We have a crisis of democracy, not manners.”
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Nationally, the descent into political indecency began in the 1990s with Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, who decided the norms of civility didn’t apply to them or anyone in the Republican Party. Publicly berating President Clinton’s private conduct while themselves doing things just as bad. Gingrich and Limbaugh spent years weaponizing incivility against political opponents. It’s how Republicans do business to this day.
The “election” of George W. Bush triggered return fire from Democrats, relentless in their attacks on Bush’s gross incompetence, endless wars and resultant war profiteering. Democrats refused to legitimize his presidency, offering up nothing but contempt.
Then, on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, came the infamous dinner during which Republican leaders conspired to ruin his presidency beginning Day 1. Refusing to abide anything Obama tried, said Limbaugh: “I hope he fails,” a sentiment echoed by the entire party.
Now the left struggles with whether to turn the cheek as we endure the most uncouth, unpleasant, uncivil, electorally illegitimate president in American history.
The cycle spirals deeper into the moral abyss.
Locally, the descent into incivility began with the Los Osos sewer wars in the 2000s and deepened under various controversies such as growth management and the Paso groundwater hubbub. Hotheads always rail against the policy decisions of individual county officials, but attacks on their character — even their families — are now common, abetted regularly by the anonymous membership of COLAB and online trolls.
That county Board of Supervisors chairman John Peschong stands among the proponents of a local civility code is ironic, at best.
After moving to SLO County not long ago, campaign consultant Peschong brought with him quantities of untraceable dark money for the uncivil practice of personally attacking opponents of his clients. Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton are beneficiaries of his craft.
Peschong oversaw the uncivil act of upending the decades-long tradition of rotating the chairmanship of the board between districts, and then inserted himself as chairman without ever having served as an elected official. He’s assisted Arnold and Compton stepping out of turn as board chairs, purely on the basis of party loyalty as opposed to fairness or civility.
As board chairs, Peschong, Arnold and Compton ignored rules of civility and sat silently while an unrelenting cavalcade of personal insult, vilification and incivility from their political supporters was directed at their political opposites, supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill. (I am a political campaign adviser to Gibson.)
Now comes Peschong and well-meaning local mayors with a decree that everyone should be civil with one another. Now? Really? Where’ve they been?
Here and across the nation, we’re facing a threat to democracy that we can only resolve by asking ourselves if our religious and time-honored American traditions of fairness, reason, humility, compassion, kindness and forgiveness mean anything.
How civil, how Christian is it for Republicans to remain silent while children are ripped from their parents along our border, some perhaps never to be returned?
As Dan Rather has written, what’s truly uncivil are the actions of our political leaders and their silent enablers:
“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 cozying up to dictators and attacking our allies and friends.
“Incivility is creating a false equivalence between Nazis and counter protesters.
“Incivility is just having the pathology to constantly lie in the first place.
“Incivility is ignoring science and reason.”
Our democracy is in crisis. Applying meaningless “civility codes” sounds nice, but it’s no cure.
Such codes allow actual practitioners of incivility to accuse their political opponents of the uncivil acts they themselves are guilty of committing. So let’s not pat ourselves on the back about how polite we now are.
Our body politic is sick. It will die without proper treatment.
The first step is admitting the problem.