The Democratic Party’s Current Civil War’s Uncivil Tactics

Northern Elephant Seal, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, CA 02feb2008 - photo by Michael "Mike" L. Baird Canon 1D Mark III w/ 600mm f/4 IS lens on tripod Elizabeth: Daniel and I have decided to write this post as a discussion, even though we are largely in agreement. We’ve both watched the conscious and celebrated rise of incivility as political tactic within the Democratic party with some dismay (see Daniel’s post about his experiences as a Hillary delegate at the Maine Democratic Convention). [Updated before publishing to add: when we started writing this post, the Matt Bruenig brouhaha had just started to be discussed on Twitter. He had not yet been fired. So it may look like initially as if we are avoiding The Very Obvious Current Conversation; we address it below.]

Having stated our basic position at the beginning, though, let me take the opening part of the conversation to make a case for the opposition — that is, sometimes we need incivility. Because I think it’s true. Then I’ll loop back later, after Daniel has had his say, to argue why I think incivility has been inappropriately used lately in the current Democratic Party infighting.

As a freelance journalist, I belong to a profession a proud tenet of which is comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Let’s take that second clause, about afflicting the comfortable. Comfortable people often do not give up their comfort readily.

The most obvious examples involve people being asked to surrender some privileged status. Comfortable people don’t like being less comfortable. There are times when only rudeness will wake people up. There are times when only violence will wake people up – there are such things as justified wars.

I am going to admit two things which are horribly horribly uncomfortable for me to admit as examples, realizing that my admission of them justly cause people will think ill of me. As well they should, actually. I think ill of myself for both of these things. They were wrong and insensitive and thoughtless and self-centered. 1) I used to think being trans was a mental disorder. (Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m even writing that, I so no longer think that way, I am so so sorry I was such an asshole.) 2) I used to think that being disabled was totally obviously a worse way to live than not being disabled. When my disabled son was born, I thought a tragedy had befallen our family. (Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m even writing that, I am so so sorry I was such an asshole.)

In the case of trans people, my mind did not get changed by incivility at all. I simply read persuasive writing, had trans students, followed trans people on Twitter, and came to realize what a shitty person I had been. (I’m so sorry.)

In the case of disability, it took something more. I taught ethics issues in class. I had read disabled authors without really digesting what they said. I was aware that in general disabled people report that their lives are as happy as people without disabilities, and I somehow told myself that they were self-deluded (it’s “adaptive preference”) – without seeing that for the total question-begging nonsense that is. It took the incivility, if you will, of my child being born disabled, of having no choice in the matter, of suddenly living a new life and seeing social injustices firsthand, and not just listening to people talk about them, for me to see how completely fucking wrong I was. (I’m so sorry.)

So. I for one, would like to admit that surely there are times when incivility is justified, even obligatory. I will argue later that now, amongst Democrats, is not one of those times, but first, I’d like to turn it over to Daniel.

Daniel: I do not disagree at all with the notion that there are times when incivility is not merely appropriate, but necessary.

If I were the parent of a lead-poisoned child in Flint, you can bet I would throw civility to hell. I think communities of color who protest being victimized by ill-trained or frankly racist law enforcement personnel are under no obligation whatsoever to be civil. It is no great struggle to think of all manner of example where calls for civility are a canard to distract from the underlying issues.

But I absolutely think that civility is of value in our civic discourse. I neither think it should be abandoned lightly, nor should its abandonment be treated like some badge of moral purity or superiority.

The underlying reason (and I’ll get to the ramifications later in our conversation, I suspect) is that being uncivil makes people feel bad.

I realize that saying it so plainly smacks of being unintellectual, of being small-minded and childish. People’s actual feelings are lesser considerations when talking about politics and policy and such, if they are considerations at all. I imagine it will seem frankly risible to some that I would be so silly as to think them important in the first place.

However, I actually do think they are important. I think treating other people’s feelings with care is not only a means to getting what you want, but also an end unto itself. Those who behave badly most certainly ought to be called out for it, and poor reasoning should be identified and argued against. But it is ill to cause others pain or distress through carelessness or malice, and speaks ill of those who do so without compunction.

And speaking of question-begging, there is nothing that begs the question more than arrogating the right to be uncivil. It presumes that one’s own beliefs are so just and one’s thinking so correct that they sweep away all obligation to consider the possibility of good faith in one’s opponent, and conveniently allows a person to go after that opponent’s character or intelligence out of hand.

Incivility is therefore not only hurtful to actual human beings, but corrosive to our ability to have meaningful, productive conversation about matters that warrant it.

Elizabeth: I agree that, incivility makes people feed bad, and that in itself is bad. It seems to me that plenty of the times I’ve seen civility itself derided recently, it was derided unnecessarily. As if respect for civility itself was a bourgeois attitude that needed to be destroyed.

Further, some people are more likely to feel worse about it than others, and that seems to make it inherently a worse thing. There’s a gender issue here, frankly. I know when I have online harassers (not that I’ve had many), I always have personal safety concerns. I suppose too, I’d have some pretty serious concerns if someone was yelling at me menacingly holding a chair. I think I’d have some, but fewer personal safety concerns if I were a 6′ man. I’d still have concerns even if he dropped the chair and was simply yelling. If a stranger has dropped all niceties such that he is yelling at me, I’m not sure what other niceties he’ll drop, so still – I’m worried for personal safety. A tactic that has such disparate effects on men and women seems an unfair one. (If the in-person harasser is female, I have some, but fewer, personal safety concerns.)

I don’t think the “Bernie Bros” charge is fair. I do not associate support of Sanders with sexism by any means. This article criticizing so-called Bernie Bros made me quite irritable when I first read it, since it’s all anecdote and no data.  However, I do wonder (totally anecdotally) if the very concept of “Bernie Bro” is born out of a disproportionate discomfort felt by those criticized. Women, quite reasonably, feel much worse when they suffer uncivil attacks. They suffer disproportionately, even when experiencing the same attack. (The fact that it is reasonable to be more disturbed by incivility as a woman does not by any means justify painting support for Bernie Sanders as necessarily sexist.)

Turning to another issue. The incivility would make more sense to me if the attacks came from a third party. Of course, then, wreck the Democrats!

But this incivility is within the same party. Parties have to follow procedures to get shit done. Beloved friend, commenter, and totally not a neo-Maoist Chris said of the uncivil Left in a comment on an earlier post:

I do not think you’re wrong: it is a movement driven by emotion, largely anger. The left in America has always been driven by anger, this has been all the truer over the last 20 odd years as it was first lampooned and then decried as traitorous by the political class. Meanwhile they, the left, watched as that same political class gutted the welfare system, ramped up the war on drugs and add the prison-industrial complex, enacted NAFTA, and then entered increasingly large and destructive imperialist wars. Then the collapse.

The campaign and first year of the Obama administration were something of a calming, at least for the less radical left: there seemed to be a promise of a liberal-progressive left coalition, encouraged both in statements against war and police state, and by a health care plan sold as a first step toward universality. Then the public option was dropped so easily, and the “recovery” was jobless and full of debt, and the left became angry again.

Clinton embodies everything I mentioned in that paragraph as inciting anger, as does the rest of the party establishment, and perhaps the party itself. As outsiders, they are naturally distrustful; as angry outsiders, they are naturally disdainful, not only of the party’s leaders and procedures, but also for the idea that those people are even capable of being worked with. They don’t want a coalition, they eat a coup. This isn’t a merger to them, it is an insurgency.

The smart ones know they will lose every battle, but the aim is to win the war.

I totally get, especially, the anger toward the triangulation of the 90s. I think the anger toward recent Obama years is better placed at Republican intransigence, but whatever. Parties are organizations made up of people who have basically similar ideological commitments and who agree to follow a certain set of rules. If the goal is takeover of the Democratic party, well, why why take it over at all if its procedures and leaders are so corrupt that it shouldn’t be allowed to go about its basic business? Why not third party? It would be far more fatal to the Democrats. Why deal with this totally corrupt machinery at all?

If the Democrat party is still incorruptible enough to be capable of being worked with, then its rules ought to be followed with some civility, albeit with protest.

Daniel: You stole “neo-Maoist” from me. I demand you admit it.

But in all seriousness, I think you are quite right about those who view civility as some kind of contemptible bourgeois value. It brings to mind a particular leftist writer (and long-ago contributor to the parent blog) who is as well-known for his vitriolic rhetoric on social media as he is for his writing. The plain, persistent nastiness of his behavior is something in which he takes evident pride, and which I got to experience firsthand when he sicced his lackeys upon me when I had the temerity to annoy him. And in the space of time between when we started this conversation and now, yet another leftist blogger with a similarly harsh manner on Twitter (documented in the article I see you linked above) has lost his blogging job because of it. (I feel compelled to note that my own interactions with Matt Bruenig have been nil, but I’ve long considered his wife Elizabeth a friend, and our interactions have always been cordial, even in disagreement.)

I see nothing admirable about such behavior. Incivility may be a necessarily evil, but I refuse to accept that it is ever something to be celebrated.

And yes, within the context of the functioning of the Democratic Party, the effects of incivility are particularly pernicious. As I said in the same conversation with Chris that you quoted above, I have very little tolerance for efforts to shout down debate. I don’t even like it when it applies to people I despise, including efforts by protesters to shut down rallies supporting the odious man the GOP is nominating in defiance of all sanity. But when it gums up the gears of the party one ostensibly supports, it not only does not accomplish anything, it prevents anyone from accomplishing anything.

I don’t want to get stuck in the weeds of the various gripes the Sanders campaign has with how the primary campaign has played out. Unsurprisingly, I am not convinced by them. But your mileage, as they say, may vary.

But if you’re going to use a particular apparatus to effect change, then it makes absolutely no sense to kneecap that apparatus as it goes about its work. It was particularly infuriating in my own personal experience with the Convention in Maine, where the Sanders supporters booed people speaking against an amendment they liked, apparently without stopping to remember that they had a delegate majority and thus could be confident in its passing no matter what was said. All they did was slow down business and alienate the very people who they need to be winning over.

Incivility is hurtful. It is ineffective. And it is contrary to the advancement of civic communication.

Elizabeth: I totally did steal neo-Maoist from Daniel, ’tis true.

In case anyone made it this far, just a couple more words to say. I don’t want to comment on the specifics of l’Affaire Bruenig because I don’t know all the facts at hand. But I want to address one more argument in favor of incivility I’ve seen floating around in defense of him, and it is this: one woman he insulted is so dreadful that there is nothing for her but to spew insults at her.

I don’t wish to adjudicate her dreadfulness. Let’s set the actual person aside, and consider a pretend dreadful person name Barley Chickarina. Let’s say Ms. Chickarina’s done terrible things. She’s lied and cost thousands of people their jobs at her soup company through poor decision-making.

A critic of Ms. Chickarina could hurl insults at her, and I suppose she deserves them in a way. She’s done bad things. But what good does it do? It’ll hurt her feelings, sure. What does that add to the world? Will justice be done then? Is the Left going to turn into a squadron of vigilantes bent on doling out mortification?

Why not, for Barley Chickarina or any political person with whom one disagrees, simply point out what the person has done wrong and why it is wrong? It is far more likely to convince Ms. Chickarina of the error of her ways, as well as others.

There is a reason ad hominem arguments are fallacies.


Daniel Summers

Daniel Summers is a pediatrician in New England, formerly known hereabouts under the pseudonym Russell Saunders. He contributes to The Daily Beast, and his writing has appeared in Salon, Cato Unbound, iO9, and The New Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @WFKARS


  1. This was fantastic, and so now I feel kind of obligated to be uncivil to the both of you for forcing me to up my game round these parts. Damn you both.

    I’m curious as to how you each social media playing a part in this. Does the world of Twiiter reward this kind of behavior in a fashion that real life never did, and still doesn’t? I ask because some of the people (I think?) referred to in this post are not people who were dealt a losing hand at birth. I think of them as being highly privileged, actually. I get where Chris is coming from, and I am sure a lot of those people exist. But a lot of the times when I see this incivility play out (excluding BLM and others), I confess I wonder how much of it is actual anger and how much is a combination of endorphins and career moves.

  2. I largely agree with the spirit of this conversation. But I find discussions of civility and incivility, and about when the one is called for and the other is necessary/understandable/unacceptable to be frustratingly predictable. The side that asks for civility has a lot to lose from the other side being uncivil. The side that apologizes for (as in tries to justify) incivility claims a special exemption from a rule they would otherwise believe bound to follow. Add to that the question of tactics, catching flies with honey, etc.

    I agree with Russell that someone in Flint whose child has suffered lead poisoning has every prerogative not to be civil. But does that prerogative extend to how the angry parent low-level bureaucrat who has had no say in how Flint got into the problem in the first place? I’d wager it’s that person who’ll have to face the brunt of that righteous incivility. And that fact has to be taken into account when assessing the righteousness of that incivility.

    As for the question at hand, the Dem party’s civil war, I don’t have a strong opinion. What Russell describes in Maine strikes me as both unacceptable and counterproductive, for the reasons he notes. And about Nevada, if the accusations are true, then that’s horrible. Even if they’re not true but “only” rumors, those types of tactics should be denounced. (I don’t know anything about the Bruenig issue.)

  3. I’m curious as to what you guys think about the intersection of civility and policy positions. Are there any positions that are uncivil merely to hold? And if so, what are they? If I write a dry, polite white paper arguing that we should cut food stamps and use the proceeds to eliminate the estate tax, am I entitled to a civil reply? What if I write a dry, polite white paper advocating for banning Muslims from entering the US?

    In the abstract, I don’t disagree with you on the value of civility. But it seems to me that too frequently, the question of what counts as civility reflects the current power dynamics of our society. I’m not sure how to deal with that.

  4. I think there is a huge, continent size gulf between afflicting the comfortable and calling people names. Calling people names, besides not changing behavior or bending ideas, doesn’t really afflict all that much. Of sure when ramped up it can be threatening and scary. That is affliction. But of course that kind of affliction is also abusive, so it really shouldn’t be a political tool. Certainly not if you ascribe to liberal values. An incisive, meaningful, moving critique of a persons views and their shortcomings is afflicting. That is also harder to do, requires a lot of effort and understanding and typically goes beyond 140 characters.

    I truely get how people are angry. I’ve been so agnry at times in my life if i could have burned the entire world i would have. But i wasn’t think at that time, i was feeling. I was inchoate and inarticute with pain and rage. So anger happens and is often fueled by genuine grievance. Fine. But what are you going to do with it. If that anger is channled into insults and a quick firestorm nothing will be changed. You might feel better with the catharsis but you are sporked in the long run. Anger channeled into meaningful effective participation can bring change. So the “but they are righteously angry” thing doesn’t move me much. What are you going to do with it? Is it changing the wrongs or just making you feel better. And when anger becomes a ready excuse for epithets that reinforces and incents angry people to keep being even angrier. Rudeness and incivility have roles and are fine on their own. But they are seductive. They make you think you doing something more than just being nasty. They blind you from thinking, since they are very much base emotions.

  5. I think the architecture of Twitter is highly significant. It is unmoderated, and anyone may respond to anyone else. This is an ideal situation for someone with no brand at all to make a brand by responding, in an insulting way, to someone who is famous. Because of Twitter’s architecture, they can’t be made to shut up.

    And this, in turn, encourages people to try to make people go away via verbal bullying, which is to say, contempt and humiliation. Which only works on the weak, and they are sort of the people you don’t want to chase away, in some sort of grand scheme, right? Your intention was to punch up.

    Public, unregulated media have exactly this problem. It’s like graffiti.

  6. Noah Berlatsky’s tweeting today (@nberlat) about the Bruenig affair, and the “Jacobin Left”, is worth reading.

    (So is Berlatsky in general, if you’re looking for leftier folks to follow.)

  7. Civility is very, very, very important for patching holes and repairing damage that comes from perceived defection in an iterated prisoner’s game.

    Incivility is a fairly sensible option when you’re playing an iterated prisoner’s game against someone who keeps defecting against you.

    Of course, in itself, incivility is also a form of defection.

    We just have to hammer out if it’s the retaliatory defection that makes sense in response to a defection or if it’s just yet another horse’s ass running up and defecting all over your iterated prisoner’s dilemma.

  8. It is no great struggle to think of all manner of example where calls for civility are a canard to distract from the underlying issues.

    The problem is that every single person on Twitter has convinced themselves that they’re standing up for the poor lead-poisoned children of Flint who are getting shot at by racist police officers. If you just read the Bruenig affair hot takes without context, you would think that either a serial rapist was justly let go from his cushy writer gig, or a that Hillary Clinton issued a kill-order on an erstwhile journalist and his family for his wonky defense of unions. You would definitely *not* think that two irrelevant bloggers got in a spat, one was fired from his side-job as a result and immediately recouped his yearly salary from donations. Freddie’s feed is more and more starting to read like pages out of Rorscharch’s journal: soon – and I assure you it will be soon – all you neoliberals will look up from the corporatist American wasteland you created and shout “Save us!” … and I’ll look down and whisper “No”.. The primary is in that awful stage where everyone knows who the winner will be, but they haven’t yet pivoted to attacking the other guy and so online liberals are throwing a pecking party.

  9. One can very civilly threaten, browbeat, and manipulate the system in order to stay in control, can one not?

  10. ” I think the anger toward recent Obama years is better placed at Republican intransigence, but whatever. ”

    Really? Gitmo maybe, but the states don’t want the prisoners either. Obama brought more droning, more foreign adventurers, Syria, Lybia, still in Afghanistan, still in Iraq. Meddling in Ukraine. didn’t go after the torturers of the Bush Admin. Seems to me that the left that opposed that sort of stuff in the 90s has every reason to be angry with the O admin for very similar actions.

    Now as to civility. Well, you reap what you sow don’t you?

  11. As promised on the Twitter, I took some time to read and digest the post and offer a reaction.

    In my professional life, I spend rather a lot of time thinking about the proper blend of emotional impact and factual density when I make legal arguments in a wide variety of contexts. Every statement is made for a purpose, and that purpose is persuasion. Persuasion happens on both emotional and logical levels simultaneously, after all. So how much emotion should go into a claim made in court? The answer is always “greater than none” but also always “less than 100%.”

    Ultimately, to the litigator, emotional stimulus is a shortcut, an incentive, a guide for one’s audience towards reaching the desired intellectual conclusion.

    Some people lack certain intellectual qualities – memory, attention span, intellectual processing space – to retain complex and detailed patterns of fact, particularly when they get exposed to those facts in the rarefied environment of a courtroom setting. So painting an emotional gloss over a pattern of facts is an important part of making an appeal, especially but not exclusively to a jury. (Judges, being human beings, are susceptible to this sort of thing, too. Indeed, opposing counsel and opposing parties are susceptible, and so am I even in my role as an advocate.)

    One kind of emotional stimulus I’m careful to avoid, and work hard to not inadvertently trigger, is that of insulting my audience. This is the result of many hard-learned lessons: I’ve found that when you insult your audience, they stop listening to you. They get defensive. They double down on the very thing that you’ve insulted them on. Insults are counterproductive to persuasion.

    I think this is because, as Russell posits, “Incivility is hurtful. It is ineffective. And it is contrary to the advancement of civic communication.” To this I’d add that in many circumstances, it is also a signal that the one relying on it does so because she has nothing substantive to say which would meaningfully add to a discussion:

    He: Racial harassment law is confusing. How am I supposed to know when I’m harassing my employee or not?
    She: Well, you wouldn’t use the n-word to describe your employee, would you?
    He: Why not? He uses that word to refer to himself!
    She: Wow! You’re just an effing racist! Get out of my office!

    Here, “She” is in indisputably in the moral right, but her second statement puts herself in the intellectual wrong. She’s stopped engaging with “Him,” and instead insults and recoils. We can think of about a thousand things that would have been better for her to say than to dismiss “Him” as an effing racist. For the same reason, as Elizabeth points out in the dénouement of the OP, that insulting “Barley Chickarina” is fantastically unlikely to accomplish anything productive.

    Perhaps offering “Him” or Ms. Chickarina actual education will not work – but even if there’s only a 1% chance that offering education will work, there is still a delta of about .99% that offering education will be more effective than offering an insult.

    Elizabeth, I think, begins the exchange wanting to point to the ability of incivility to quickly and powerfully focus someone’s attention on their own shortcomings. But I don’t like her examples, because I don’t see that they disprove my basic problem that incivility is counter-persuasive. After all, no one at all was uncivil to her in a way that caused her to grow more aware of what it means for someone to be trans; and indeed, no one at all was uncivil to her when life forced her to confront disability. Instead, she anthropomorphizes her life circumstances to explain how she reached a stage of personal growth. I don’t read that anyone ever called her an “ableist” or a bigot, whether correctly or falsely.

    Now, I agree with Russell that sometimes, particularly when one has an actual, significant, immediate grievance, incivility is entirely understandable. “My kid just drank lead that you assholes let get into our water supply!” The “assholes” part of that remark actually doesn’t contribute very much to the statement, at most underlining the accusation of fault, but it’s still understandable and forgiveable.

    Those words — “understandable” and “forgiveable” — belie something critical: the incivility of the use of the word “assholes” in that sentence obliges one to understand and forgive. You don’t forgive something that wasn’t wrong in the first place. You don’t try to understand something that naturally belonged in the conversation on its own merits. In a circumstance like that, perhaps we can make room for the insult, but it’s still not the ideal for public discourse even in such a circumstance. We make room for that sort of thing in some circumstances, and this would be one of them, but it requires the making of room.

    So, in nearly every circumstance in which one wishes to accomplish something by way of conversation, invective, incivility, and insult get in the way of reaching that goal — at least with respect to one’s interlocutor. It’s probably an entirely separate essay to contemplate a circumstance in which one’s interlocutor is a foil to one’s real purpose. Donald Trump didn’t insult Marco Rubio as “Little Marco” for the purpose of convincing Rubio to withdraw from the Presidential race. He used the insulting nickname to persuade Republican primary voters that they ought not vote for Rubio.

    But I don’t think this post reaches that sort of rhetorical gambit: we’re talking about outright incivility here. Hostility to one’s interlocutor for its own sake. This is emotional masturbation: maybe it feels good to you (and pretty much no one else) while you’re doing it, but ultimately, it accomplishes nothing you actually wanted, and those who witness it are very likely to be disgusted with you for it.

  12. I hear you about my examples about my kid. I will say that I did see disability activists call parents who had similar attitudes to mine uncivil names, and it did in fact lead me to reflect on my own behavior.

    Likewise, I think that being called an uncivil name will pretty much never result in a genuine moment of reflection on the part of the insulted. However. It may well draw someone *else’s* attention to an injustice being done, and that could be worthwhile in certain circumstances.

    Don’t you think that has happened in the case of police aggression?

  13. Bruenig’s argument had a nugget of truth behind all that invective. His initial observation was correct: Hillary supporters claim the Oppression Olympics gold as a shield against criticism and a way to cast aspersions on those who dare vote otherwise, but the deeper cleavages within the Democratic primary electorate are actually between age groups, not the axes that have the cultural left’s OK to tell other groups to sit down and shut up.

    It’s not in Team Hillary’s interest to acknowledge those polling crosstab results, let alone reckon with what they mean. So the smaller racial and gender divide is played up as the salient difference between the candidates’ base of support. Thus, the acceptable range of tones is broadened for Team Hillary and narrowed for Team Bernie.

    The double standard means that if you define the parties to an argument to your liking, you get to define what and how your enemies talk to and about you. It practically begs for tokenism and all sorts of essentialisms. The voiceless are just tools for the establishment to hide behind.

  14. Thank you both for this discussion. Civility in daily life, excluding politics, is disappearing quickly enough. And when politics is the focus, boundaries between what constitutes a passionate defense and an unnecessarily offensive attack need to be made even more clear. Particularly when the Democratic Party may be changing, hopefully for the better, as a result of the Sanders vs. Hillaryite conflicts.

    That said, anyone who disagrees with my brilliant arguments in favor of whatever I’m talking about are stupid boo-boo heads who should be asked to leave the party before the cake is served. Nyaaah.

  15. Oh, fuck off.

    [Hi, Badass! Thanks so much for commenting!

    This is your one and only warning that this comment is in gross and obvious violation of the Blinded Trials policy regarding civility. Should you decide in future to share comments along the lines of “oh, fuck off” again, please be advised that I will delete them as soon as I notice them, and will also delete anything else you feel like sharing henceforth.

    I will not warn you again. Do better, or go away.

    – Russell]

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