I am not in Wroclaw, Poland today, but back home in New York. This banal observation may not surprise you, but it is a notable event in my life. Over the past 27 years, in the summer, I have gone to Poland to teach in The New School’s Democracy and Diversity Institute, a post-1989 development coming out of the original Democracy Seminar. Because of family responsibilities, I missed two years, so for me this would have been the 25th anniversary of my engagement in this remarkable project. I retired from the endeavor last year, deciding that it was now time to pass the baton to others to sustain the project.
That said, I can imagine being there today and observing how it would seem as if I had never left. There is constitutional crisis centered around an assault on the independent judiciary, as was the case last year. At that time, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) attacked the Constitutional Court, and now it is the Supreme Court. Again, there are demonstrations in the street and squares as citizens desperately mobilize to block what increasingly appears inevitable, the transition from democracy to dictatorship. I can imagine being there and joining in, while, as I did last year, teaching my course on Media, the New Authoritarianism and Its Alternatives. Again, there appears to be strong similarities with what is happening there in Poland and here in the United States.
My judgment last year was that the similarities also underscored important differences. Poland’s liberal democracy was relatively new and not firmly institutionalized. Therefore, the threat of a new tyranny was clear and present. In the United States the threat did not seem as critical. The U.S. is, after all, the oldest modern democracy in the world, with strong legal and social support, despite all its problems.
I am not so sure about this contrast today. It appears that the underlying norms of democratic practice are rapidly eroding in America, making the authoritarian turn more likely. Last week from Paris, it dawned upon me that fascism was more a part of American public life now than I ever thought would be possible. Distance clarified. Today on this hot, humid and stormy Friday, examining the threat closely at home, and thinking of my friends, colleagues and students in Wroclaw, I see details that alarm me.
It is not only that Trump is an authoritarian with the support of a significant part of the public. It is not only that members of his party are kowtowing to his whims and wishes, making his authoritarian views their own. And it is not only that the Democrats may be cornered by a population possibly more satisfied by the apparently strong economy, than concerned by the fate of the republic. Trump’s behavior is undermining key social norms that support a democratic life. A normlessness is setting in, a political anomie, as the classical French sociologist Emile Durkheim might put it.
I have special concern about civility. I know that many of my friends and colleagues think this is a trivial matter. In the face of the horrible things that are happening in the world and close to home, a concern about “good manners” may seem to be unimportant and perhaps even pernicious.
Punching Nazis in the face makes sense under certain conditions, as does not socializing with people who support the Trump administration and its authoritarianism, or refusing to serve them in restaurants. Yet, I wonder both about the practical consequences for the struggle against the authoritarians and for the possibility of sustaining democracy if and when the struggle is successful.
It seems clear to me that when Nazis don’t demonstrate a clear danger, punching doesn’t only punish them: it casts doubts on the commitment of those who punch to the politics of persuasion, rather than the politics of domination.
Not as clear is whether the norms of civility should be applied to those in official and public positions who present a threat to democracy in their speech and actions. Are the good people of Martha’s Vineyard justified in shunning Alan Dershowitz in light of his steady apologies for the Trump’s authoritarian ways? Are the owner and workers of the Red Hen restaurant acting appropriately when they refuse to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders on her off time, when at work she deftly lies daily supporting the abuses and atrocities of Donald Trump?
Absurdly, the president, himself, even has criticized the incivility. Yet, he is not civil. His standard way of responding to opponents and criticism is to attack them wildly and viciously. The media are the enemies of the people. Football players who protest police violence and racism in American life should be deported. There’s not only crooked and lyin’ Hillary, crazy Maxim Waters, goofy Elizabeth Warren (and Pocahontas) and cryin’ Chuck, but also low-energy Jeb, little Marco, liddle Bob Corker, and lyin’ Ted, among many others, including “Rocket Man.” Democrats who didn’t clap for him during his State of the Union Address are denounced as treasonous. The president blames them for the horrors of his own immigration policy, disparaging them for wanting illegal immigrants to infest the U.S.
Trump shows little or no respect for his opponents. Indeed, he treats his opposition as enemies, which includes any one who didn’t vote for him, a clear majority of the American people. One week after the murder of five journalists in Annapolis, Maryland, he once again maligned journalists as “bad people,” “crooked,” “fake” and “dishonest.”
This is pernicious, but responding in kind may not only be un-strategic, turning off people who should be convinced to join the opposition; it also weakens democratic culture.
I believe that norms of civility are a key to democratic practice and think intellectuals have a special democratic role to play in facilitating civility. Intellectuals can and do make it possible for people who disagree to confront each other short of violence, to move from being enemies, to being opponents, to being collaborators. Civilizing differences, I believe, makes it possible for people to meet and talk with each other, and develop a capacity to act together. This makes a democratic politics and polity possible. It’s an important cultural basis of democratic life. I, therefore, worry about the spread of incivility from Trump to his opponents.
That said, I have an important qualification. Civilized interaction among people who have different positions, both social and intellectual, especially between the dominant and the dominated, has its limits. Another democratic role for intellectuals and citizens, therefore, is to subvert the norms of civility that make domination and injustice opaque, when they normalize tyranny and injustice. Such civil norms need to be subverted. Knowing when the need for civility ends and the need for subversion begins, something I explored in my book on the role of intellectuals in democratic society, is a matter of judgment, and of politics.
For this reason, I suspect if Dershowitz were my neighbor, I would avoid him if possible, and if I were Sanders’s waiter (a position I had many years ago while working my way through college), I would be relieved if my boss didn’t require me to serve her. But I must say that even though many of my friends and colleagues say and write “fuck Trump” with ease, I judge that this, and similar formulations with less vulgarity, in general, are not wise formulations.
My colleagues and friends in Poland, face a profound crisis today. The prospects for rule of law, and free and fair elections in their country are receding. Here too, things don’t look good. Figuring out how to oppose requires not only strategies, as I suggested last week in broad outlines, but also a self aware etiquette.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.