On Liberty: Democracy and Civility

On Liberty: Democracy and Civility

. 4 min read

Yousra Nebera. Originally published in Winter 2017.

The 2016 US presidential election has been polarizing for the American populace, reactivating racial and religious biases held by many Americans and further fragmenting American society. Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric surrounding Mexicans, Muslims, and other minorities has often been deemed a significant contributor to these rising tensions, evidenced by increases in racially-based school bullying and hate crimes against Muslims. Whether such discourse is meant to incite verbal and physical violence is irrelevant—its  effects have been widely felt in American society.

With Trump’s victory in the presidential election and the ensuing opposition protests across major US cities, it is important to address the divisions deepened during the campaign season. Many of Trump’s supporters have viewed Trump’s rhetoric, or willingness to “tell it like it is,” as a redeeming quality and a further reason to support him. This factor played a role in his success in the South Carolina Republican primaries, where nearly 80 percent of voters indicated that this was his most important quality. However, some political theorists, such as philosopher John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, suggest that it is in the best interests of democracies to have a standard of civility to allow for civil discourse. Mill’s argument for civil discourse illuminates why it is in the best interest of the United States, as a democracy, to adequately address the pressing racial and religious tensions that have been amplified during this campaign season.

Civil Discourse

Why is civil political discourse important for democracy? Before attempting to answer this question, a distinction must be made between the type of incivility that can actually be useful to democracy and the type of incivility that is damaging to democracy. This article will focus on the latter.

Professor Cornell Clayton of Washington State University defines incivility as a violation of the customs and norms of society. When understood this way, incivility does not always carry a negative connotation in terms of its relationship with democracy. For example, the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century was widely considered uncivil at the time. Women’s rights advocates violated the norms and customs of their society to advocate for their right to vote, which is a clearly democratic cause. A similar argument can be made for the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century, in which African American activists routinely violated the norms of society to advocate for their civil and democratic rights. According to Clayton, these instances illustrate that incivility can actually lead to more democratic outcomes.

However, Clayton maintains that there is another type of incivility that is more concerning for democracy. Democratic values become threatened when incivility manifests itself in the form of violence, intimidation, and exclusion of certain groups in public discourse. This is the type of incivility that has been predominant throughout the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s rhetoric surrounding Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, a handful of veterans, and other groups breaks conventions in a way that does not advance democratic values. In this case, the incivility is not of the type that challenges us to question the value of our norms and to overcome them in the name of democracy, but one that serves to further marginalize particular groups in American society.

The effects of this type of incivility threaten the efficacy of democratic governments. To better understand this exclusionary incivility as a threat to democracy, one must comprehend the essential value of democracy, as explicated by Mill.

Theory: Truth and Democracy

Mill argues that democracy is the best solution in the struggle between “Liberty” and “Authority,” which he describes as the protracted, central conflict in determining the best system of governance. In order for Liberty and Authority to be balanced, a nation’s rulers must come from the people so that the interests and will of the nation as a whole reflect the interests and will of the people. It follows then, that if the nation’s rulers should be from the people, those people should also be able to discern what is best for the collective. Mill’s characterization of humankind’s ability to discern this truth for society is essential to understanding the importance of inclusivity and civility for democracy.

To Mill, we as individuals are limited in our ability to discern truth and therefore cannot always ascertain what is best for rule. Instead, each of us comes to understand only one facet of this truth, and thus the truths that individuals are able to obtain are only half-truths. Because individuals come to only understand one facet of truth, these truths must be considered in conjunction with others’ self-discovered truths to form a more complete, collective truth, a process which is the purpose of democracy.

Additionally, Mill argues for a continual individual search for truth. He contends that democratic societies are strengthened by individual thinking combined with a diversity of lived experiences, as they allow for an understanding of more facets of truth. The population as a whole must be well-cultivated through education that emphasizes critical thinking, because a populace that thinks precisely will be able to realize a more complete truth. Maintaining a high intellectual standard is particularly important in a democracy, where the people must determine their own truths and implement them through self-government.

Mill’s conception of the democratic process produces superior governing outcomes because of its capacity to give voice to more facets of the truth, which often leads to an appreciation of diversity. But the ability of a democracy to achieve a clearer picture of what is best for the nation hinges on the willingness of individuals holding differing viewpoints to engage with each other, acknowledging relevant facts and experiences that they may have previously neglected—acknowledging the half-truths that aren’t their own, as Mill would say. That is, there must be civility and inclusion in a democracy for it to be effective.

It is precisely this norm of respect and appreciation for the inputs of marginalized perspectives that is integral to the strength of democracy, yet this norm has been largely abandoned this election season. While the current political climate is saturated with uncivil and divisive rhetoric, it will inflict lasting damages on American democracy if not properly addressed.