A Matter of Integrity: Civility and Political Discourse


In the case of Trop v. Dulles (1958), the Supreme Court heard the peti­tion of a soldier stripped of his citi­zenship for desertion during World War II. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the gov­ernment to revoke the citizenship of a U.S. citizen as punishment. The Court cited the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. While it might seem odd to open an article on civil­ity in public discourse with an Eighth Amendment case, it is not the amend­ment itself, but the manner in which the Court interpreted it, that warrants dis­cussion here. Wrestling with its mean­ing, Chief Justice Earl Warren conclud­ed that its language was neither precise, nor static in scope. The amendment, he explained, draws its meaning from the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing soci­ety.” A very interesting concept indeed, when applied to discussions of civility.

The context, of course, is impor­tant. Chief Justice Warren meant to highlight the notion that as a society matures, less humane aspects of its politics, and culture should evolve as well. We no longer draw and quarter, or sentence lawbreakers to the whipping post. Should we expect any less when it comes to civility and free expression?

However, how do we define civil­ity? Especially if we accept the notion that it cannot be static—as technology and innovation are constantly redefin­ing the means and manner in which we communicate. In this sense civility is a lot like obscenity, at least in the way the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart chose to define it in his famous opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), “I know it when I see it.”

The problem lately is that we do not see enough of it. From caustic attack ads to a lack of decorum in the hallowed halls of Congress, we now celebrate as exceptions, what we would hope would be the givens in political discourse in a constitutional democracy. That in “the marketplace of ideas,” to paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, it is the soundness of arguments rather than the race, religion, bombast, or background of the messenger that matters most.

The Marketplace of Ideas

Interestingly, Holmes first articulated that concept in his famous dissent in United States v. Abrams (1919) in defense of a group of anarchists con­victed under the Espionage Act. “If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart,” Holmes explained, “you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition. . . . But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths,” he con­cluded, “they may come to believe even more than they believe the very founda­tions of their own conduct that the ulti­mate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.”

While Holmes wrote eloquently in defense of free expression, even in wartime, he never suggested that such discourse had to be uncivil. In fact, inci­vility and a lack of reason in political discourse helped to fuel the Civil War, in which Holmes fought on the side of Union. As Civil War historian, C. Vann Woodward conceptualized the decade leading up to the war, “In the course of the crisis each antagonist, according to the immemorial pattern had become convinced of the depravity and evilness of the other. Each believed itself perse­cuted, menaced . . . paranoia continued to induce counter paranoia, each antag­onist infecting the other reciprocally, until the vicious spiral ended in war.”  

Rather than a deviation, the ugly turn in American political discourse in recent years may be more consistent with our past than we would like to imagine. As historian Geoffrey C. Ward explained, “Our ancestors seem to have liked nothing better than vitriolic, abu­sive, intensely personal politics. Even the greatest statesmen delighted in it.” The spread of new technology from the radio, to television, to the Internet has simply made the rancor more acces­sible and allowed people to partake sin­gularly in the politics of their choice in essence circumventing the marketplace of ideas. In recent years, the immemo­rial pattern described by Woodward seems to be augmenting what Richard Hofstadter aptly called the paranoid style of American politics. Political dis­course in America has become a one-sided conversation fueled by technol­ogy that allows the individual to drown out all other points of view but their own, helping to erode respect for even the highest of elective office, the presi­dency. This certainly was not the intent of the nation’s founders.

Influenced by the heady ideas of the Enlightenment that celebrated rea­soned discourse, the Founders envi­sioned a republic in which there could be impassioned debate on issues free from prior restraint. They also were keenly aware of the rancor of public discourse on matters of politics. They nevertheless insisted on free speech as a safeguard against tyranny.

Today, if we are able to show the marks of our progress, then political discourse should be reflective of a soci­ety that has proved in blood its respect for the free exchange of ideas without the instruments of violence and the language of hate. Even as it demands greater sacrifice from all of us to think about the ways in which controver­sial ideas and disagreements might be expressed—in honor of that sacrifice— with truthfulness and respect.

“Integrity,” President Harry Truman once commented, paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, “is what happens when nobody is watching.” If that sage wisdom remains true, then civility aptly describes what happens when everyone is watching.

In 2009, for instance, in what he later described as an act of spontaneous indiscretion, South Carolina Represen­tative Joe Wilson interrupted President Barack Obama’s delivery of a special health care address to the nation by shouting, “You lie!” While Wilson later apologized, South Carolina Represen­tative Jim Clyburn nevertheless hit on the crux of the problem. “I was always taught that the first sign of a good education is good manners,” Clyburn explained shortly after the incident. “I think that what we saw tonight was really bad manners.”

For history and social studies edu­cators, Joe Wilson’s outburst, at the very least, warrants an examination of the principles of proper decorum balanced with the right of free speech. While the right of free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment has become an essential feature of American democra­cy, should we concern ourselves solely with its legal limits without taking stock of its moral and ethical considerations, as well?

While prohibiting the government from enacting measures to restrain free speech, it is nevertheless clear that the Founders also expected that individu­als would not only be responsible, but accountable for their words and actions as caretakers of American democracy. As Benjamin Franklin memorably responded to the inquiry of what form of government the United States was going to have as he exited the Constitutional Conven­tion in Philadelphia in 1787, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin’s words convey the deep level of personal responsibility Americans share as custo­dians of American democ­racy, of which civility is an important ingredient. It is not a stretch to presume that they also imagined such discourse would be respectful in line with the customs of the day. “Let your Conversation be with­out Malice or Envy,” rule number 58 of George Washington’s translation of the Rules of Conduct dutifully advised, “for ‘tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commend­able Nature: And in all Causes of Pas­sion admit Reason to Govern.”

Accountability Is Critical

Representative Wilson violated the rules of etiquette established by his own party when he heckled the Presi­dent. House Republican procedures identify seven categories of unparlia­mentary speech, which all members should avoid. All in some meaningful way touch on common courtesy, one of the cornerstones of civility. What the rules demonstrate collectively is the expectation of respect by each member not only for the body, but also for one another. It is an investment that is not possible without respect for some basic rules and decorum.

  • Defaming or degrading the House
  • Criticism of the Speaker’s personal conduct
  •  Impugning the motives of another member
  • Charging falsehood or deception
  • Claiming lack of intelligence or knowledge
  • References to race, creed, or prejudice
  • Charges related to loyalty or patriotism

The House rules betray the keys to civility in political discourse. First, civility begins with courtesy tempered by personal integrity that allows one to disagree without being disagreeable, even when faced with hostile or abusive language. Calls for personal integrity and accountability, for instance, often follow major breakdowns in politi­cal civility. After a heated exchange between two Alabama state senators, Charles Bishop and Lowell Barron, ended in a punch thrown in the state senate chamber in 2007, their colleague Senator Hank Erwin appealed to that body to use the incident as an opportu­nity for each member to examine their own sense of integrity. Acknowledging, what he described as “back stabbing, [and] abusive language on both sides,” he refused to endorse a resolution to remove Bishop. “I think if we are going to use Senator Bishop as an example,” he lectured his colleagues, “we need to say what changes we are each going to make in our personal behavior.”

Erwin’s comments succinctly cap­ture the importance of personal integ­rity in all types of communication, espe­cially in the field of politics. They also indirectly underscore the importance of veracity (truthfulness) and invest­ment, the sense of responsibility each individual should feel to the whole body politic. All of these factors ultimately should influence the use of language.

In defense of his actions Alabama senator Bishop, for instance, blamed the hostile language invoked by his colleague. “I was raised in the woods of Arkansas,” he clarified, “and people don’t say that about your mom.” No one would deny that language is impor­tant and while the First Amendment protects speech, it does not remove the individuals’ responsibility to be respectful in their use of language. With a far greater means of amplifying their message, elected officials have an even greater responsibility to be judicious in their communication respecting the rules of debate and civil discourse for the benefit of the entire body politic and ensuring truthfulness.

A powerful recent example best illustrates this point. At a political ral­ly in Ohio in October of 2008, Arizona Senator John McCain responded to an attendee’s reference to then-candidate Barack Obama as a disloyal Muslim Arab with, “No, no ma’am he’s a decent, family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamen­tal issues, and that’s what this campaign is about.”

The televised exchange won praise for McCain, whose forthright decision to tackle the false allegations tran­scended his own political aspirations, a show of integrity that remains uncom­mon. In 2012, for instance, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum drew criticism for his failure to correct a woman at a campaign event in Florida who called the president an “avowed Muslim.” In response to reporters’ que­ries surrounding the incident, Santo­rum articulated what we might term the cornerstone of the mantra of incivility, a denial of responsibility. “I don’t think it’s my responsibility,” he explained. “Why don’t you go out and correct her? It’s not my responsibility as a candi­date to correct everybody who makes a statement that I disagree with.”

Santorum’s comments suggest what some might term a lack of invest­ment. Legal scholar Christopher Eis­gruber has observed that “American government aspires to be both demo­cratic and just. . . . To insist that justice and democracy coincide,” he continues “makes heavy, but we may hope, not impossible demands upon the Ameri­can people.” Those heavy demands call upon us individually and collectively to reflect on our own behavior and its impact on our life and government. If we collectively do not accept responsi­bility for the manner in which we care for our democracy, we will share the blame when it no longer functions as the Founders intended.

Civility is not always about what is lawful, but what is respectful. It is how the personal influences the politi­cal. The lesson to take away from pub­lic officials in their best moments from George Washington to John McCain is never to lose sight of the humanity of those with whom we disagree. To be honest and respectful in our discourse is as much a means of ensuring the golden rule as preserving our democ­racy, frail and imperfect, but far more desirable than the alternative.

Yohuru Williams is Chair of the History Department and Director of Black Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He is the author of Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Black Panthers in New Haven and Teaching U.S. History Beyond the Textbook.



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