The Civility Crisis and How to Cure It

While the nation has been right to focus on the most recent outbreak of incivility, if not downright hostility, directed toward President Obama generally and his health care proposal specifically, the diagnosis of what ails the country and what must be done to end this type of behavior has been way off target.

Republicans, who were quick to compare the actions of their party's fringe elements to harsh, sometimes over the top Democratic criticism of   former President George W. Bush missed the qualitative difference between expressing strong policy disagreement with the opposition, which is fair game in any political season, and taking guns to Presidential appearances.  Ironically, Republicans are guilty of the same "moral equivalency" judgment error that they accused Democrats who minimized Communist war crimes in Vietnam and the actions of urban rioters of in the 1960s of committing.     Speaker Nancy Pelosi was closer to the truth when she likened today's vitriolic rhetoric to the hate speech directed toward gays in San Francisco in the 1970s, but she failed to pursue the historical analogy far enough.

This kind of anger, born out of a sense of fear of a rapidly changing world, and directed at those that seem to be causing the world to move both too fast and in the wrong direction, has erupted regularly whenever America has gone through the type of generational change it's now experiencing.

As generational theorists, William Strauss and Neil Howe pointed out, an idealist generation animated by moral beliefs, such as today's Baby Boomers, have, in their youth, regularly shaken American society by confronting the cultural values of older generations. Such generations have always been followed by an alienated, individualistic generational archetype, which tends to be rude and disrespectful, especially toward its elders.  The most recent historical examples of this archetype are the Lost Generation who came of age in the 1920s and Generation X, born 1965-1981.  As members of these two types of generations mature and assume positions of leadership, society coarsens and rhetoric escalates from being merely confrontational to speech that is deliberately designed to provoke and incite. It's the difference between Boomer rock n' roll and Gen X rap--or between Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.

But inevitably, this harsh cultural style engenders a backlash from an emerging civic-oriented generation.   The most recent civic generations are Millennials  (born 1982-2003) and, in the 1930s and 1940s, the GI Generation.    Historically, the type of generational alignment we see now is associated with the most traumatic and significant crises in American history: the American Revolution and adoption of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and World War II.  The way this generational confrontation has been resolved in American history should give pause to those who encourage incivility, either by their silence or their direct involvement.

Popular opinion was sharply divided during the Revolutionary War.  Between a fifth and a third of the population of the Thirteen Colonies supported the British. Estimates are that after the war, between sixty and one hundred thousand Loyalists fled the newly born United States.  Nor did the Constitution's ratification end our divisions. In spite of George Washington's warning against the "partisan spirit" and the intentional failure of the Constitution to mention them, nascent political parties- Republicans and Federalists -formed by the end of his administration to confront one another on the issue of the proper role and size of the federal government.

Roughly eighty years later, seemingly irreconcilable differences between generations and regions led to the Civil War. Once Lincoln assumed the presidency, he faced opposition from all sides. The words, if not the deed, of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, "Sic semper tyrannus" ("Thus always to tyrants") succinctly expressed the thoughts of most white Southerners about Lincoln. In the North, much of the criticism was intensely personal: Lincoln was called an "ape," a "baboon" or worse. Many opposed what they perceived to be a war sacrificing the blood of white men to free blacks. Riots protesting the military draft broke out in Northern cities. In New York blacks were lynched and the city's Negro orphanage burned. Even within his own Republican party, a faction called him timid for failing to emancipate the slaves sooner than he did or to pursue a more vindictive policy against the secessionist states.

When the generational archetypes were again aligned in a similar way in the early 1930s, the country was confronted by the greatest economic crisis in its history. While a hero to many, a month before his inauguration, Roosevelt was nearly the victim of an assassination. Giuseppe Zangara, an unemployed bricklayer with anarchist leanings, fired at FDR but hit Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago instead and killed him. Once in office, Roosevelt was personally criticized from the right for being a "traitor to his class." In shrill language that is once again being tossed cavalierly around Washington today, FDR's policies and programs were labeled "foreign," "socialist," "communist" and "fascist." His Social Security proposal was derided as a severe invasion of privacy. At the same time, from the other side of the political spectrum, Roosevelt was criticized for not doing enough to dismantle the capitalist system and, in the words of Huey Long, "Share the Wealth."

History demonstrates that the first years of a transition from an ideological era, such as the one Boomers and Xers dominated from 1968 to 2008, to an era dominated by civic generations, like the GI Generation and Millennials, are initially among the most rancorous, contentious, and sometimes violent, of any in American history.  But history also provides valuable lessons for how to deal with these tensions in order to increase civic unity.

The Founding Fathers worked hard to promote an "era of good feelings," admonishing citizens to maintain decorum in their public debates, even as they privately excoriated their opponents. Lincoln confronted his detractors directly, most famously with his principled stance that "A house divided against itself cannot stand."  And FDR condemned "economic royalists" intent on defending their privileged position to the detriment of the "forgotten man."

As the newest civic era begins, both Republican and Democrats must, in President Obama's phrase, "call out," those who engage in lies and demagoguery or threaten physical violence toward governmental institutions and leaders. Both sides need to brand such actions, not just wrong-headed, but a threat to the nation's ability to successfully sail through the troubled waters of our current generational alignment.  History suggests that a true sense of national solidarity will return when the nation successfully confronts the major challenges it will continue to face.   But in the interim the least that must be done is to denounce actions and behavior that will make future unity more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.