Ronald Reagan called on America to shine as a “light on a hill” illumining the promise of democratic government. Today such a light would reveal a hill with a pack of snarling wolves turning on each other with bared fangs. It’s better to turn off this light until this brawling mob can reform itself into a unified pack for community life.
At a minimum, this reformation calls for a return to the age-old virtue of civility. Civil Politics.org defines civility as “the ability to disagree productively with others,” with the goal of “improving inter-group relations across moral divides.” When we hear utterances calling Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables,” or mantras of “Lying Hillary” with the refrain “Lock her up,” or the dissing of Trump’s inaugural address as “Hitlerian,” or, for that matter, the toting of obscenity spewing protest placards, we are not improving inter-group relations.
To drive away the wolves, I suggest we rededicate ourselves to three core principles of civility: respecting a loyal opposition, playing by the rules and pledging more civil discourse.
Stable democracies are grounded in peaceful transitions of power by a citizenry’s expression of national will in elections. Results of these elections are respected. Winners take office, and losers assume the role of loyal opposition. This principle requires that, while the two sides may respectfully differ, they need to come together to achieve compromise solutions to national problems. Such essential cooperation is not well served by constantly promising to “fight” for this and that, as if the other party were some kind of enemy. Thus, in one of the debates, when asked who her enemies were, Hillary Clinton’s quick response, “Republicans,” was not a path to productive disagreement. Similarly, neither were the government shut-downs orchestrated by the Republicans under President Obama the best way to improve cooperative government.
To secure a loyal opposition, the Constitution established a system of checks and balances to block majorities from steamrolling over minorities, and ensuring that these minorities would have opportunities to have some influence over policies, and thereby retain a stake in the system. This necessity of minority participation (and loyalty) has been particularly vested in the Senate with its age-ole rule of requiring super majorities to pass legislation. This was badly frayed when former Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid secured the so-called “nuclear option summarily lowered the bar for the approval of presidential appointments (except for nominations to the supreme court) down to a simple majority."
, thereby removing any need for a loyal opposition’s involvement and engagement. Not surprisingly, Republicans snarled at this. With the 2016 election giving the Republicans the White House and a majority in both houses of Congress, it is now Democratic fangs that are bared.
Furthermore, having a loyal opposition critically depends on mutual trust. This trust, in turn, must be built on respecting the rules of the political game. An opposition’s loyalty can be retained if it loses fairly. But if the other side is seen as winning by cheating, the trust dissolves.
Internationally, presidents maneuver around the Senate’s treaty-making power by proclaiming Executive Agreements that elude the Constitution’s mandate of Congressional oversight. The Iran “deal” is just one such string of cases that date back to the days of FDR. Domestically, when Presidents become frustrated by the perceived intransigence of opposition party disapprovals, few can resist the temptation to bypass Congress with Executive Agreements. As a constitutional scholar, President Obama should have known better, but he couldn’t resist. President Trump probably doesn’t know better, but he has already shown that he can’t resist either. So, the wolves are now at each other’s throats, cheered on by a bloodthirsty media.
Before this turns into a national bloodbath, we might do well to step back and listen to ourselves. What do we sound like? We have a media with so many competing outlets that attention goes to the shrillest, as one commentator shouts over another. We have created a spectacle that is tragically vindicating the Biblical warning of James: “The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison … set on fire by hell.”
To shine light back on the promise of Ronald Reagan’s “Hill,” we could banish these snarling wolves by turning Donald Trump’s call for “America First” inward. Lest we forget: as fellow citizens, we are Americans first, and Republicans and Democrats second, living in a republic founded on civil discourse.