The Farmer At Lexington Again: Notes on Civility in Politics

So last week in my “Con-Con-Con” post I offered a few thoughts on the conditions necessary for political compromise (namely, fundamental agreement about some first principles) that are largely absent in our political life today.  A closely related idea thrown around today is “civility,” never more so than in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January—an act that turned out to have had no relation to political strife, but which the Left somehow sought to blame on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

The Economist magazine’s Lexington column this week (which was written for a long time mostly by Adrian Wooldridge, nowadays the Economist’s DC bureau chief) considers the civility issue by first noting the apparent differences in the American and British political scenes:

Britain’s House of Commons reeks of conflict. The rival parties glare at one another from opposite benches. Debates are barbed and sometimes vicious—especially during the gladiatorial spectacle of prime minister’s questions. America’s Congress is different. Members of the House of Representatives sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the shape of a horseshoe. Debates, such as they are, are marked by an exaggerated decorum. The casual observer might easily conclude that America has the more consensual form of politics and Britain the more adversarial.

But of course, this is an illusion, as we all know relations between Left and Right in America are at daggers drawn while opposing Brit politicians repair together to their club rooms after their set piece battles for a smoke and a snootful.  “Lexington” ends with a weak appeal for folks in Washington simply to talk more with each other.

Much as I admire the Lexington column most of the time, this won’t do.  A better guide comes from the latest installment of the Letters from an Ohio Farmer, the series of Federalist Paper-style essays sponsored by our friends at the Ashbrook Center reflecting on the Tea Party moment we find ourselves in today.  The current Farmer essay, “Words and Politics,” also notes certain affectations of American political discourse that are borrowed or derived from the British tradition that are becoming a bit precious and insincere in our polarized age, and offers the counterintuitive suggestion that one way of increasing the civility quotient in politics would be to drop the pretentious and insincere language of Capitol Hill in favor of more direct terms:

There is one aspect of political rhetoric, however, that office holders have within their power to change, and that change might help remove the sense many citizens have that our political class is remote from us.  When elected officials arrive in Washington, they very quickly pick up a way of talking that is not found in any other walk of life.  It comes in two forms.  First is the language of “comity,” the way in which our senators and representatives habitually refer to their bitter political opponents as “my good friend from the great state of Colorado,” and so forth.  In a few cases, this language expresses a true friendship across party lines, but it is usually a lie, and everyone watching on C-SPAN knows it is a lie.

This language probably is an import from the British parliamentary procedure of referring to the “right honorable gentleman from Blaby,” or some other specific constituency, in the House of Commons debates, but the formality of assuming honor in one’s opponents is a different thing than asserting friendship where none exists.  This language of comity probably serves a useful purpose in keeping political discourse more temperate, but why not drop the pretence and use more neutral language—”the representative from New Jersey,” “the senator from New Mexico,” even “the honorable representative from New Jersey”?

There is more, but I recall that it was farmers who stood against the Brits at Lexington in 1775.  Better to stick with the Ohio Farmer against “Lexington” today.


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