Lots of Americans decry the ugly condition of American politics. They are not wrong. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans have become positively tribalistic in their politics, viewing the opposing party with more animosity and contempt than at any time in the poll’s 25-year history. And note: these findings were published before the 2016 election.
In my last book, Democratic Humility, I argued that neuroscience shows that all of us are inescapably biased. It, therefore, stands to reason that we should show more humility about our own political views and more tolerance toward those with whom we disagree. Based on this argument, people who call for a more civil politics naturally see me as an ally. But my views are not so simple. Like all virtues, humility, moderation, and civility must be understood and exercised in context. And that means there are times when their application, and even their desirability, diminishes in the face of more exigent objectives.
In my book, I recalled that in 1831, at the ripe old age of 26, William Lloyd Garrison started a newspaper, the Liberator, dedicated to the abolition of slavery in America.
In the first issue, Garrison wrote:
I am aware that many objects to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.
In 1831, people owned other people. In the face of that moral atrocity, moderation was not only unwarranted, it was morally illegitimate. The house was on fire, and the fire had to be put out. Who would dispute that Garrison was right? Who does not hope that we were there, we would have behaved the same way?
And now? Writing for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan recently said that we are in a state of “emergency:” The actions of our president threaten the survival of our system of government. For Mr. Sullivan, the house is, again, on fire. I must agree. Given our president’s chronic, unprecedented, and disastrous assault on democratic norms, we must once again circumscribe the ideal of moderation.
What might that circumscription mean, concretely? It means that using harsh, belittling, even vituperative language against the current occupant of the White House is morally legitimate. Shouting down one U.S. Representative in a town hall might well be the best way to convey the anger, fear, and resentment that a majority of Americans feel. It means, also, that leaks to the press of information that contradicts or otherwise undermine the Trump Administration are responsible ways of fulfilling the public’s essential right to know the truth.
Of course, those doing the leaking, those belittling the holder of the office of president, those shouting down opponents, none of them can be sure that their choice is the right one. Violation of these democratic norms might only serve to only take us further down a road from which we cannot return. It’s certainly possible that Garrison’s rejection of moderation might have increased the prospects of a disastrous civil war.
But there is also a danger in strict adherence to civility, come what may. Acting like things are normal when they are not, does not convey the danger of the moment, and therefore undermines the prospects of an appropriate, sufficient response. In an emergency, adherence to democratic norms cannot be the only or even the prevailing consideration.
For what it’s worth, this is not far from what Garrison himself believed. “With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.”
There will come a time when all of us will have to undertake the daunting task of recommitting ourselves to the norms that make our democracy possible. But right now, moderation should not be our goal. It is only one of several means. We should choose to be moderate only if we judge that moderation best serves a more fundamental and exigent objective. The house of American democracy is on fire. Our overriding goal must be to put the fire out.