What civility attempts to do is to advance a certain mode of discourse, particularly when it comes to debates and disagreements with our fellow citizens. It assumes that in most cases – absent fairly extraordinary exceptions – basic good manners is what we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. Civility also helps inoculate us against one of the temptations in politics (and in life more broadly) — to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own. Civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. It is also something that is prized within the Christian faith. “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,” St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “so that you may know how to answer everyone.” And to the Galatians, Paul describes the fruits of the spirit as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Incivility is notably left off the list.
As for [the] claim that a central tenet of conservatism is incivility: This is a bizarre assertion. There is nothing in conservatism that presupposes rudeness and boorishness. Think of the two most important figures in conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr. Both men were renowned for their grace, class, and good manners. They were remarkably and blessedly free of roiling resentments.
While often the target of vicious attacks, Reagan maintained a pretty charitable view of his political adversaries. “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents,” former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who worked as a political aide in the Reagan White House, quotes him as admonishing his staff. Even Mr. Reagan’s rare flashes of anger did not cross lines of decency or turn ad hominem.
As for Mr. Buckley: as Andy Ferguson reminds . . ., after a nasty exchange with Gore Vidal in 1968, Buckley for the rest of his life “admitted to being ashamed of the moment — not merely for the lapse in manners but for allowing so crude a provocation to produce exactly the effect Vidal intended.”
But the great model to look to here, as he is in so many areas, is Lincoln. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinct quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”