FROM THE MAGAZINE
Liberals used to be the staunchest advocates of reasoned, civil debate. No more. Now it’s argument by name-calling.
Brian C. Anderson
Spring 2001 Politics and law – The Social Order
It undermines two principles crucial to liberal democracy and central to its superiority to other forms of government. Democracy requires a willingness to engage civilly with those you disagree with, recognizing their equality as citizens. Social thinker Michael Novak calls this democratic etiquette the “amity and equanimity proper to a civilized people.” To be sure, this noble ideal inevitably takes its knocks in the bruised-knuckle world of real politics; as Frederick Douglass once pointed out, those who look for politics to be unfailingly polite “want rain without thunder and lightning.” But calling someone a racist or a bigot says that his ideas have no place in the democratic public square. It’s an annihilating gesture, appropriately directed against a David Duke or a Khallid Muhammad, not against the principled beliefs of your conservative fellow citizens.
Without reflection—reason—politics degenerates into tyranny or mob rule, the Founders believed. For them, name-calling and dismissing the views of your fellow citizens out of hand are the tactics of the mob.
Liberals once incarnated reason and civility. John Locke, liberalism’s father, held that “the right improvement and exercise of our reason . . . [is] the highest perfection that a man can attain to in this life.” He viewed civility—”that general good will and regard for all people which makes anyone have a care not to show in his carriage any contempt, disrespect, or neglect of them”—as the Number One social virtue.