For many commentators, the healthcare controversy of late 2009 and early 2010 marked a nadir in the decorum of American public debate. At town hall meetings, enraged voters shouted at their congressmen, and Sarah Palin urged her Twitter followers: “Don’t Retreat, INSTEAD—RELOAD!” Jon Stewart christened the typical conservative protestor “Mr. Yellington J. Crazypants,” while MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann dismissed Palin as an “idiot” and opponents of the healthcare bill as “subhumans” and “ghouls.”
This is deplorable, right? Not according to Susan Herbst. She believes that bad manners in the public square are not all bad. Herbst discourages our urge to bemoan the boorishness of American political culture. Instead of defining civility as a static “set of norms and practices” and wringing our hands over the sorry state of those norms today, we should focus on the “strategic uses of civility and incivility” in politics. “Civility is best thought of as an asset or tool,” she writes, “a mechanism, or even a technology of sorts.” In other words, when Palin accused Obama of plotting “death panels” that would kill her son, and Olbermann retaliated with jibes that belong in a junior high cafeteria, they were using deliberate—and, Herbst implies, valid—tactics to rouse their supporters. At the same time, she laments Americans’ incapacity for listening carefully to their opponents and urges readers, especially bloggers and other drivers of the new media, to explore a more productive “culture of argument.”
Rude Democracy begins with the rise of modern notions of self-control and etiquette in the eighteenth century, and rebuts the impression that today’s politics are dirtier than yesteryear’s. (The book’s cover depicts Preston Brooks’s notorious caning of Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in 1856.) After this regrettably brief historical prelude, she focuses on two contemporary case studies: Sarah Palin’s 2008 campaign and Barack Obama’s 2009 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame—with a third chapter on the results of a survey about civility in academia that she and colleagues conducted among Georgia university students. In all, the book sheds light on the present political moment, but may be too disjointed, with too little historical or theoretical grounding, for lasting relevance.
While Herbst tilts in favor of Obama’s political style and his message to the Notre Dame audience of mutual respect between opponents, her critique of Sarah Palin is generous, and more interesting. She credits Palin with “extraordinarily effective uses of both civility and incivility as strategic assets…Her style is highly conflict-oriented, but at the same time provides the communicative comfort that binds supporters to her with great intensity.” This language is less than clear, but Herbst elaborates by citing Palin’s gift for anecdotes and intimate engagement, which fostered an informal atmosphere where “uncivil outbursts” were welcome. She balanced confidence in her political record with her testimony as a mother, and wielded her sexuality to become what Herbst calls (in overly excited italics) “the fusion of gender politics and the complexities of civility in our time.”
She notes the media’s anxiety over Palin’s sex appeal as a “fascinating thread” that snakes through political history from the early suffragettes to Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton—a fair but unsatisfying comparison, especially since Herbst ignores the more apt parallels in the annals of the religious right’s ambivalent engagement with feminism, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant. To argue, as Herbst does, that “Palin reinvented the very notion of the crowd for our time” and employed Republican campaign techniques “with a bold, female voice unlike any before it” gives “Sarah Barracuda” far too much credit. The more interesting question is whether there is something uniquely American—rather than uniquely female—in Palin’s ability to rally a massive following despite (or because of) her proud lack of expertise and her brazen manipulation of facts.
Herbst traces the strategic uses of incivility through the 2009 health care debates, analyzing memos on “how to rock the town halls” that circulated among conservatives. She suggests that all the bellowing and booing was more than a spontaneous outpouring of anger: the “strategic use of incivility was pursued as a way to disrupt the meetings, garner media attention to the disruptions, and shape the national debate and the public policy outcomes themselves.” Herbst criticizes the liberal media for exaggerating the mob-like atmosphere in American Legion halls and school gymnasiums around the country where voters gathered to question their representatives. (She also faults similarly impressionistic coverage of Palin’s rallies.) Her appraisal is correct, if somewhat obvious: bad behavior both fascinates and repels, and political reporters have always sought out fist-shaking and red-faced shouting over reasoned debate, whether their reward was penny papers sold or page hits.
Despite Herbst’s convincing case for the tactical nature of the town-hall tantrums, she misses a more important point: democracies in general, and perhaps the United States in particular, are not very good at managing public conversations about complex issues. The incivility at town hall meetings, the shouts of “Obama is a socialist!” and “Listen to Glenn Beck!” that drowned out politicians’ attempts to speak, were not only rhetorical ploys. They demonstrated that the populist strain in American politics, newly revived, means that cluelessness in defense of delusions of liberty is no vice. Herbst states early on that facts “may have only a marginal relationship to the struggle over civility.” She mentions in passing that Palin’s misrepresentation of palliative care counseling as “death panels” deviated from the truth, but otherwise fails to note the most striking feature of the town hall meetings: the gross ignorance and anti-elitism of voters whose influence, while failing to halt the healthcare bill, did radically reshape it.
The real danger—and the real cunning—of “incivility” such as Palin’s is that it exempts her from dealing with complicated issues head-on. Her healthcare rhetoric shut down serious debate of the issue before it could begin, and implanted in her followers’ minds an immutable image of a threat that does not exist (compounding the already considerable confusion of Americans, 39 percent of whom believe that the government should “stay out of Medicare,” according to a recent poll). Palin trades in images, not facts. What Herbst perceives as her clever balance of civility and rudeness is better understood as an imagistic shuffling—from “Sarah the hockey mom” to “Obama the socialist murderer”—of tropes that avoid the messy business of the truth.
Herbst moves from the national political scene to her study of Georgia students, prompted by a mandate in the state legislature’s Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education Act in 2007. The transition is jarring, though her research reveals striking patterns in how university students perceive the freedom of discourse in the classroom. Many complained about rude classmates who could not brook an opposing point of view. “Contrary to the image of college being a place to ‘find oneself’ and learn from others,” Herbst writes, “a number of students saw the campus as just the opposite—a place where already-formed citizens clash, stay with like-minded others, or avoid politics altogether.”
Herbst leaves the reader wondering: what are the principles that these “already-formed citizens” hold so dear? She might have better integrated this chapter with the rest of her book by probing whether this collapse of civil discourse in the classroom has roots in conflicting presuppositions, as in the battle between liberals and conservatives over health care. When two parties have irreconcilable ideas about community responsibility and human nature, they will struggle to develop the mutual empathy vital to civility. In recent decades, conservative evangelicals in particular have begun to stress the presuppositions undergirding their “biblical worldview,” and to encourage a defensive, intellectually self-conscious stance in their children. In this age of culture war and values voting, the Georgia study may suggest that families of all persuasions are doing the same.
In her conclusion, Herbst urges readers to nurture “a renaissance of civility”—especially on the Internet, where a welter of anonymous outbursts passes for discussion on most websites. She offers some concrete suggestions, such as replacing comment boards with moderated discussions, and emphasizing argumentation and listening skills in school curricula. But her book leaves the reader frustrated. Despite vague allusions to the structural and cultural context of the “strategic uses” of incivility that she so carefully tracks, Herbst does not address fundamental questions—the problem of democracy’s ignorant priesthood of believers, and the destructive feedback loop between culture warrior politicians and the self-appointed citizens defending inviolable but ill-considered first principles. In politics, civility may be a matter of strategy, but might it retain also a hint of its original Middle English sense: respect for civic order, and conduct befitting a citizen? You betcha.
Molly Worthen is a freelance writer and doctoral student in religious history at Yale.