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A 2004 reenactment of the 1804 duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Marko Georgiev/AP Photo

Civility at the core of American democracy, whatever politicians say

Exceptions prove the rule. Extremes reveal what is indispensable.

The phenomenon “Trump” is both an exception and an extreme: His brand of politics proves and reveals just how important democratic civility is to a vibrant democracy.

As a philosopher who looks at the the ways in which emotions impact political freedom, I am interested in how humans have established civility and how we sustain and strengthen it in order to bequeath it to future generations of citizens.

Modeling uncivil behavior

From the very beginning of his run for the White House in June 2015, Donald Trump has demeaned and insulted American Muslims, Mexican Americans, journalists, women, U.S. generals, President Obama, the Republican speaker of the house, beauty contestants and many more. In fact, just days before the election, The New York Times compiled a list of the 282 people, places and things Trump has insulted on Twitter.

Trump the candidate has, over the past 15 months, modeled and sanctioned the kind of uncivil discourse and behavior that has not been acceptable since the 19th century, in which candidates would call each other “atheists,” “murderers,” “pimps” and all kind of character assassination epitaphs. In the case of then Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, they went so far as to duel unto death.

Among the slogans coined by Trump’s supporters, one of the least offensive, because of its brevity, but most enlightening, is “Trump that Bitch.” This slogan reveals that his supporters understand something about their candidate: that Trump is a verb of maximal violence.

It is one thing, however, to insult an opponent. It is another to gratuitously demean innocent bystanders. What Trump has excelled at, and what makes him fall outside the mainstream of U.S. political discourse and culture, is his cruelty. As political theorist Judith Shklar famously claimed, in her book “Ordinary Vices,” cruelty is the summun malum, or “supreme evil,” of civil democracies, a moral and political failure that must be avoided at all costs.

That Shklar thought cruelty the worst thing that a democrat can do underlines one of the essential dimensions of democratic civility in which we acknowledge each other’s equality and liberty.

Civility: A history

“Civility” – the word and the concept – has a long and meandering history.

It begins in the 4th century B.C., in Greece, with Aristotle’s use of the expression “koinia politike” to refer to the type of human connection that happens in the polis (city) and the agora (gathering place) that is different from the type of relationship that we find in the private sphere, the space of the family.

Koinia politike was translated into Latin as “civilis societas” by Italian humanist Leonardo Bruni during the early 1400s.

Bruni’s translation unleashed a series of linguistic innovations but also ambiguities.

The School of Athens. Aristotle is at the center in a blue cape. By Raphael - Stitched together from,

Civil society is linguistically related to city, civil, civilization and another term that is difficult to translated into English, the French word “civilité.” This term is sometimes translated as “having or related to good manners,” or etiquette.

It was the translation into French of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s 1530 book “De civilitate morum puerilium” (On Good Manners for Boys) that popularized the word civilité. In this book, and in similar texts aimed at the general civic education of Christians, Erasmus linked civil and moral virtues.

Good manners are a sign of moral excellence. For Erasmus civilité is not simply a mask, a way of comporting oneself in “polite” society, but a way of relating to oneself. How we treat others reveals how we treat ourselves morally in as much as we treat others as moral equals. To have good manners, then, is a sign of one’s membership in a community of mutual regard and mutual respect.

What sometimes gets lost in the translations, but which is nonetheless buried deep in the semantic layers of the word civitas, is that this virtue of mutual regard is directed at strangers.

In the polis, or city, strangers gather as equals. Civility, in other words, is an ethics of respect for strangers. It therefore follows that how you treat strangers is the measure of your moral excellence.

The process of civilizing

In his seminal book, “The Civilizing Process,” sociologist Norbert Elias argues that there is a genealogy that links the evolution of “manners” with the development of “state formation” or the rule of law. Governing, or what we call “administration,” presupposes a modus vivendi that is enacted through rules of political etiquette.

Erasmus of Rotterdam. Hans Holbein, National Gallery

Where did these manners come from? They are the descendants of Christian virtues such as charity and gratitude. They are adaptations of the customs or courtesies practiced at royal courts. Courtesy may have, over time, acquired negative connotations associated with deception and a hollow respectability. But what civility retains from the notion of courtesy is the idea of nobility. Democratic civility can therefore be seen as the nobility of a citizenry that treats itself with moral and political regard.

Elias’ genealogy confirms the association that Erasmus made centuries earlier. Civility is, on the one hand, manners or behavior in public, and, on the other, an ethical relationship with oneself.

The point to underline here is that both Erasmus and Elias make us aware that democratic civility is not a natural state but demands work: It is one of the accomplishments of civilization.

Democratic hope

Political philosopher Richard Boyd has referred to civility as a restraint on political discourse. I would argue that this restraint is also a form of democratic care and solicitude. With both restraint and solicitude, civility enables democratic hope and human solidarity.

The arc of the moral universe that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of so many times is bent toward justice by the discourse of equals who revel in their difference.

Anna Howard Shaw.

We find sources of this type of elevating civil discourse in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, in suffrage leader Anna Howard Shaw’s 1915 “The Fundamental Principle of a Republic,” John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech “Ask not what your country can do for you,” Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of Berlin, and Barack Hussein Obama’s 2013 inaugural address.

Trumpism may have vulgarized and debased our electoral politics, but he has also unwittingly illuminated brilliantly one of our proudest and greatest accomplishments: a civil democracy that elevates and does not denigrate, that inspires hope and not cynicism and that models moral and political excellence.

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