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Wednesday
September 19, 2018

Diary of July 4, 2018

"Democracy requires principled gov’t. Thank you Red Hen!!" So read the placard someone placed outside the restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, which drove away Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week for no better reason than that she worked for President Trump. The sign expressed a widely held opinion, but it happens to be false — indeed, almost the reverse of the truth.

What democracy actually requires is a modicum of civility and a willingness to listen to alternative points of view without damning them as unprincipled just because they differ from your own. "Principled" government is too often the plea of the dictator, seeking to stifle dissent.

That kind of forced unity is different from the voluntary kind which we used to celebrate on Independence Day. Since the turn of the century, however, when we first began to speak of blue states and red states, the divisions in our country have come to seem both deep and permanent.

Angelo Codevilla of the Claremont Review of Books has even written of our "cold civil war."

When we fought a hot civil war in the 1860s nobody on either side was in any doubt about what caused the conflict, but the origins of today’s struggle, and especially the bitterness with which it has been carried on for the last decade or so, are comparatively obscure.

If I had to point to one thing at the root of the problem it would be the normalization, during the last Bush administration, of the charge of lying made against one’s political opponents. "Bush lied, people died," went the mantra of the left, thus eliding the distinction between a lie and a mistake and opening the floodgates to further unwarranted accusations of lying.

In parliamentary systems modeled on the British House of Commons there is a still-existing tradition of censure against what is called "unparliamentary language," which includes the charge that a fellow member has been guilty of deliberate falsehood.

A moment’s thought will reveal the reason. Any organization whose purpose is debate obviously cannot function if members are free to question each other’s good faith. Once you have called someone a liar, no further exchange of views is possible — only further name-calling, which is the point at which our national dialogue now appears to have arrived.

Where, as in Britain, even members at ideological daggers drawn are compelled to address each other in the third person as "the right honorable gentleman" or "lady" ("gallant" for military men or "learned" for lawyers are permissible alternatives), there is a natural brake on abusive language. It’s true that such quaint vestiges of the ancient honor culture do not apply outside Parliament or, a fortiori, in the media, but there is a certain spillover effect to the culture at large when the government sets such an example of rhetorical restraint.

In theory the Congress of the United States recognizes the concept of unparliamentary language, but because the Speaker of the House — who, in the British system, is non-partisan and has the power to enforce the prohibition unilaterally — is a partisan office, it is necessary for a motion of censure to be passed by majority vote. This can only increase partisan rancor and means, in effect, that censure is almost never invoked.

For this reason, the House came up with the lesser sanction of "reprimand" in the 1970s, and this was used against Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina when he called out "You lie!" during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress in September, 2009. But that was the exception which proves the rule. The last time a member of the House of Representatives was censured for unparliamentary language was in 1921; the last time a member was censured for calling another member a liar was in 1875.

In the Senate, Rule 19 of the Senate Committee of Rules and Administration reads: "No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator." But when, in 2015 Senator Ted Cruz called his own party’s leader in that body a liar, no one thought to invoke Rule 19. And when Senator Cruz ran for president the following year, he cited the incident as a badge of honor, supposedly indicating how principled he was.

Now that trading accusations of mendacity has become so routine, and therefore so meaningless, both inside and outside Congress, it might be time to pause for a retrospective look at one of the good — and, indeed, necessary — things about the honor culture which prevailed at the nation’s Founding. Surely, if there is anything the two sides of our cold civil war can agree on it ought to be the desirability of bringing back the discipline of mutual respect to our public debate.



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