Are we so far gone as a country that nothing but death and near-death can stir within us a sense that we and those who disagree with us are equally worthy of respect?
The shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others Wednesday during practice for the congressional baseball game has brought an outpouring of sympathy from across the political spectrum. At the White House, President Donald Trump was refreshingly gracious: “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country.” TV commentators who usually drip with contempt about all things Republican were somber and sympathetic.
Only tragedy persuades us to put down our verbal cudgels, and even then not for very long. In one instant we are united in horror; the next, cable news guests are screaming about whose fault it was. One thinks of W.H. Auden’s famous dedication to Christopher Isherwood: Let us honour if we can / The vertical man / Though we value none / But the horizontal one.
What if, just once, we decided not to wait for a tragedy before we found the strength to honor those who disagree with us? Because it does take strength to be civil. Being nasty is easy. But the fact that it’s easy doesn’t mean that it’s right. I have long argued that civility is a sacrifice that we make for the sake of our common life.
When I make this point at a moment apart from tragedy, the answer I hear most frequently is that the political issues are so important that the people on the other side are obviously not merely wrong but evil. With respect, this is moral laziness. Civility is hard work, but it’s a part of the fundamental work of democracy.
Here both sides might usefully learn a lesson from Thurgood Marshall, whose nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court was announced 50 years ago this week. I was honored to serve as one of Marshall’s law clerks and, during the year before his death, as interviewer for his official oral history. I have written before about his almost otherworldly respect and regard for those who disagreed with him, even on racial segregation, the most pressing moral issue of the 20th century. That he was able to fight unceasingly for what he believed to be right while remaining civil toward the other side suggests that it should be possible for the rest of us to do the same.
And there are further lessons that Marshall can teach us. As it happens, this spring also marks the 60th anniversary of a remarkable television interview that he gave to Mike Wallace of CBS News. The entire video is worth watching, but I want to single out two snippets that seem to be of particular import.
First, for my friends on the right, particularly those who support Trump, there is the moment when Wallace asks Marshall whether he believes that President Dwight Eisenhower has done all that he should have to support the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, at that time three years young.
Marshall answered: “The president should have shortly after the decisions, or at least by now, have gotten on the television network or radio and spoken as the chief executive of this government to the good people of the South, urging them to support the decision of the Supreme Court as the law of the land whether they believed in it or not ... and to use the full influence of his position as president to bring about peaceful solution of this problem.”
Marshall added: “Our moral leadership should come from the top executive of the government. It's his responsibility. He can't duck it.”
This seems to me entirely correct. The president’s respect for the courts should be reflexive, like his love of country. Yes, like anyone else, judges can be wrong. Sometimes they are grievously wrong. But it’s the responsibility of those who hold positions of power and influence to find ways to criticize the decisions of the courts without resorting to invective and name-calling. We should be reminded constantly on every hand, but especially by the president of the United States, that judicial decisions, whether we like them or not, are the law of the land.
The interview also contains a lesson in civility for my friends on the left. At 3:50 of the interview, Wallace poses a hard question:
Do you feel any sympathy for, any understanding of the Southerner, the white Southerner who is forced suddenly to change not only his attitude but his whole way of life?
Marshall’s reply is instructive: “I have as much sympathy as I could have for anybody. I recognize it is a tough problem. It’s a problem that at times would seem to the average Southern white man as being insoluble. I recognize it, and I for one would do everything in my power — so would the NAACP — to work it out in a way that would be satisfactory to both sides’ concerns.”
This attitude, it seems to me, is far more productive than the tendency of today’s progressives to couch every controversy in Manichaean terms: never a hint of compromise, never a whisper of sympathy for those it is easier to call names. Such an approach is destructive to both civility and democracy.
Let me be clear. I am referring here only to how we debate. The blame for Wednesday’s shooting rests entirely on the shooter, not on either side’s incivility. I am suggesting, rather, that we as a nation would be stronger if the sense of togetherness that touched us all when we heard the news from Virginia should this time prove to be not as brief and evanescent as usual.
The shootings at the congressional baseball practice were horrific. The responses to it by politicians and pundits were heartening. Tragedy always seems to turn us, briefly, civil. Although I am perhaps being romantic, I think it would be wonderful if this time, we could maintain for more than a day or two the tone of mutual respect. That’s the very least that democracy demands of us.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.