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We Need to Re-Learn Civility

It has become cliché to point to some political move you disagree with and exclaim, “the founding fathers would be rolling in their graves!” The triteness is especially acute as it relates to how we project our politics onto those who came before us. We have a strong inclination to frame Americans of the past, particularly from the founding generation, in angelic terms. Those who fought for our independence and founded a polity based on the consent of the governed could not possibly identify with the low grade, partisan struggles we are dealing with today, right? Well, not quite.

It doesn’t take a history degree to uncover a few lurid details we would rather forget about the founders. If you need a refresher, much of the second act of the hit musical Hamilton is a recitation of the flaws of the founders, from petty personal feuds to lecherous scandals of infidelity; capstoned in a literal duel that ended in the death of one of the most prominent U.S. leaders of that day. While examples like these exist, there is a reason why we hold that generation in such high esteem. It comes down to this: though many founders fell short of the standards they set for themselves, they maintained high standards they were trying to achieve on behalf of the country.

On March 4th I found myself standing on the steps of the United States Supreme Court. On that day, the Court was hearing the oral arguments in the case June Medical v. Russo, the first abortion related case before the high court in the past several years. Gathered outside on the sidewalk were two opposing rallies in support for each side. This freedom to assemble and express opinions is part of what has historically made our country both unique and great.

It is clear that as a society we have drifted from healthy to unhealthy discourse. We see evidence of this in schools, in the workplace, and unfortunately, in our government. I was alarmed when during the pro-abortion rally outside the Supreme Court Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), expressed disdain saying, “I want to tell you Gorsuch, I want to tell you Kavanaugh, you have unleashed a whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You don’t know what will hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”. In essence, Schumer specifically called out justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh with a threat directly pointed to them and tied to how they may or may not vote in regards to this case.

While in some ways our culture has become immune to these types of threats, Schumer’s remarks sank to a lower level. As a twenty-year member of the Senate and minority party leader, Schumer should understand the unique value of the judicial branch of our government and the independence needed to perform its duties. Further, it is simply taboo to refer to justices by last name and with disrespect coupled with warnings and ultimatums.

Ironically, I was recently given a copy of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s book, A Republic, If You Can Keep It. I was struck by his reference to George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. As a boy, Washington copied these rules based on those composed by French Jesuits in 1595. To consider these rules of civility is an interesting study in the ways our culture has both advanced and declined. Given the conversation surrounding Schumer’s remarks, it is appropriate to pause and consider rule #1, “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present”.

While the reprehensible threat issued by Senator Schumer may not have been unthinkable during the life of George Washington, the reactions to it would have assuredly differed. Every political movement, every group, every person will make mistakes. They will say or do things they shouldn’t have and wish they could take back. They will fall below the standards they set for themselves. It is vital to recall at times like these that falling below standards is not an argument against those standards, it is an argument for doing better.

Though he was never prosecuted, following his role in the death of Alexander Hamilton, Vice President Aaron Burr was castigated from public life and ultimately fled the country. While that should not be the fate of Senator Schumer, he and his allies should have the courage to acknowledge that what he said was wrong. As a society, civility is a skill that we must re-learn. We need to remember George Washington’s wisdom, and strive so that “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present”.

Kevin Tordoff serves as Chief Strategy Officer at Americans United for Life