In a democracy, political decisions are typically made by way of elections. In winner-take-all systems, elections produce winners and losers. It seems natural, then, that in the United States our talk about democracy tends to focus on the competitive aspects of politics. For example, processes for filling political offices are called “contests” and “races”; candidates for such offices are called “contenders” and “hopefuls”; and electoral wins are called “victories,” while losses are called “defeats.” When a candidate loses especially decisively, we reach for stronger language; we sometimes say the candidate was “trounced” or side was “clobbered.” Our popular political vocabulary closely resembles the way we talk about sports. So, in addition to wins, losses, and races, there are cases of running up the score, playing out of bounds, and even spiking the political football.
Seizing on this, candidates and commentators tend to proceed as if political wins are deeply like sports victories. Winners present themselves not only as having prevailed against the other candidates, but also as having defeated everything the opposing side stands for. The team that wins the World Series is thereby the champion, and there’s nothing for the other teams to do other than begin training for next season; similarly, winning candidates tend to proceed as if those they prevailed against are relegated to a similar status: they must reconcile themselves to their losses, step aside, and look towards the next election.
Of course, part of the reason why the sporting vernacular is so prominent in our politics is that it indeed captures fundamental features of how democracy in the United States works. As we noted at the beginning, our winner-take-all elections really do produce winners and losers. So, that similarity is not an illusion. However, the similarity with sports goes only so far, and it is shallower along other lines than its prominence may suggest. Read more »
Colorado has been a purple state so long that the last time the Democrats had all down ballot State offices, the State House, and State Senate was in 1936. We’re a cowboy state. On the map we’re a sea of red with a tiny blue area to the east of the Continental Divide, plus the tiny population of Aspen. But those small urban and suburban areas have more and more people, and increasingly those people have a voice. And this time that voice has brought us a gay Jewish Democrat as governor, as well as a Democratic attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer. Democrats will control the State House and State Senate. We’re so damn Blue we’re almost cobalt.
How did we do it? Can it be duplicated on a national level? It’s national news that we elected the nation’s first openly gay governor. But we also elected Colorado’s first African American congressman and he’s only 34. We elected the first transgender state rep. We elected more Latinxs to the state legislature. We elected the first Democratic woman to the position of secretary of state and she beat the incumbent in a seat that hasn’t been held by a Democrat since the Eisenhower years. All five of the female candidates in competitive districts for State Senate won handily. And for Congress, Democrat Jason Crow aced the previously unbeatable Republican incumbent Mike Coffman, who had won the previous five terms. Trump blamed Coffman for not embracing him, but in actuality it was Crow’s ability to tie Coffman to Trump that helped Crow win.
Maybe it’s marijuana. Coloradans are so relaxed they just couldn’t work up a rage against a small raggedy caravan of women and children hundreds of miles away. But clearly, the real reason for the great Blue success is Trump. Read more »
Democratic politics is all about argument. Hence, with the US election season upon us, expect commentators from across the spectrum to begin offering familiar lamentations regarding the sorry state of our popular political discourse. Often these critiques express a yearning for a mostly fictitious past in which opposing candidates addressed their differences of opinion by means of calm and reasoned discussion rather than with attack-ads, smear campaigns, and dirty tricks. One popular way of posing the complaint is to say that in contemporary US politics, we have lost our collective sense of civility.
We all agree that civility in political argument is an increasingly scarce good. Yet it’s not clear precisely what civility is. On some accounts, civility is equivalent to conflict aversion; one is civil insofar as one is conciliatory and irenic in dealing with one’s political opponents. Civility in this sense seeks to deal with disagreement by disposing of it. Civility of this kind is little more than a call for compromise at the expense of one’s own commitments. Hence this kind of civility might be inconsistent with actually believing anything. To be sure, compromise among clashing viewpoints is frequently a fitting avenue to pursue once argument has reached an impasse. But when taken as a fundamental virtue of argument itself, compromise is vicious.
Another prevalent account of civility is focused on the tone one takes in arguing with one’s opponents. The thought is that when arguing, one must avoid overly hostile or antagonistic language. On this view, a paradigmatic case of incivility is name-calling and other forms of expression overtly aimed at belittling or insulting on one’s opponents. Now, there is no doubt that maintaining a civil tone when arguing is generally good policy. But a civil tone is not always required, and there are occasions where aggressive language is called for. Argument is a form of confrontation, one with words instead of weapons, and any norm that prevents argument from displaying the critical edges of disagreements undercuts what inspires the argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is possible to fail at proper argumentation and yet maintain a calm and respectful tone of voice. In fact, under certain circumstances, one patronizes one’s interlocutor precisely by sustaining one’s composure. If civility of tone has a purpose, it is to maintain conditions under which proper argument can commence; thus it is not itself a component of proper argument.