Following the Senate’s reprimand of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for shamelessly attempting to slander new Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a racist, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) delivered a speech calling for more respect in politics.
It’s getting rave reviews all over the web— “impassioned and inspiring,” “makes you wish he had been the GOP nominee,” “really important,” “biggest adult in DC,” “tremendous”—but the truth is that Rubio inadvertently illustrated why civility is vastly overrated, and why following his advice will only degrade politics in the long run.
First, let’s get out of the way where he’s right. Of course we don’t want to emulate the “parliaments around the world where people throw chairs at each other” (as entertaining as those videos can be). Of course we don’t want a situation where “half the people in a country absolutely hate the other half of people in that country.”
But a situation where everyone is always expected to be “respectful of one another” and never let things become “personal” is no better.
It would be nice if all debates could stick to the issues. But the simple reality is that, contrary to Rubio’s declaration that he “serve[s] with 99 other men and women who deeply love their country,” Congress is teeming with objectively bad people—liars, demagogues, lawbreakers, and others who don’t care who their policies hurt and take their oaths of office fully intending to violate the Constitution.
Of course it’s appropriate to attack the character of such people—in fact, it’s necessary, and most Republicans’ chronic refusal to do so is one of the biggest reasons why Democrats have gotten away with so much over the years.
We know that stigma is often more effective than trying to reason people out of evil. The civil rights movement didn’t win because racists heard an intellectual argument and realized they had no rebuttal, but because good people made being a racist so contemptible that most dared not identify themselves in polite company.
Indeed, if we’re defining civility as “personal judgments are categorically off-limits”—where evil gets respect so long as it’s wrapped in good manners—we’re asking for a world that’s inherently less civil and less productive than a community that’s free to be honest, to hold bad-faith actors accountable with proportionate candor.
Speaking of foreign parliaments, the recent video of British Prime Minister Theresa May slapping down Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a breath of fresh air compared to footage of American legislative sessions. Rowdy? Sure. But having everyone’s true feelings about each other out in the open enables focus on the reasons for that antipathy, making it more genuine and productive than the farce of Congressmen endlessly trading each other “while I have the utmost admiration for my colleague from the great state of…”
(Oh, and May just got the votes to advance Brexit, so apparently Rubio was wrong about whether governments can “function if people are offending one another.”)
Rubio himself perfectly undermines his case when he brags about the fact that when the Senate debated Hillary Clinton and John Kerry’s nominations for Secretary of State, nobody read on the floor any of the “very nasty” things that had been written about them.
Excuse me? Clinton’s history of corruption is vast, and Kerry launched his political career by slandering his fellow Vietnam veterans. Of course that’s relevant to whether they have the integrity to represent America to the rest of the world! It disgraces the Senate that it’s decided character doesn’t matter to Cabinet offices, that almost every member—of both parties—voted to confirm Clinton and Kerry (including Rubio in the latter case).
Finally, Rubio’s speech illustrates that his version of civility means sacrificing truth, by stressing he didn’t believe it was “necessarily the intention” of Warren to make her objection to Sessions personal, or that she “came on this floor here tonight saying, ‘I am going to be disrespectful on purpose and turn this into a circus.’”
I’m sorry, Senator, but you’re insulting the intelligence of everyone who read Warren’s words. Few charges are more personal than racism, and her stunt directly coincided with the announcement of her new book, shortly after which she fired off fundraising emails exploiting the incident.
The bottom line is that Warren’s accusation was despicable because it was false, not because such questions should be off-limits. If an AG nominee really was racist, pointing it out would be a public service. But under the logic of Rubio’s speech, decorum requires ignoring ugly truths while treating character assassins with kid gloves.
He calls it civility, but conservatives have a different word for that logic in other contexts: appeasement.