It’s no secret that I like Jon Huntsman. So do a number of media types and 8 out of the other 10 non-Mormons who actually know who he is
When he decided to officially enter the Republican Presidential primary a couple months ago, Huntsman got a lot of attention for his pledge (apparently, this is the only pledge he’s willing to make) to run a civil campaign. And a lot of people questioned whether someone with a commitment to civility could actually become President nowadays. It’s an interesting question.
But to answer it, I think you need to have a clear understanding of what civility in politics is and what it is not.
We will conduct this campaign on the high road. I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the Office of President. Of course we’ll have our disagreements. That’s what campaigns are all about. But I want you to know that I respect my fellow Republican candidates. And I respect the President of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better President; not who’s the better American.
If you’re one who believe that political civility means focusing only on yourself and refusing to personally criticize your opponent, then, no, a “civil” candidate almost certainly cannot become President. But that’s not what political civility is. And it’s clearly not what Huntsman himself thinks is required in order to run a civil campaign. Civility in politics is about separating the man or woman from their message. It’s about refusing to make personal character judgments based on policy positions. And whether a candidate who runs this type of a civil campaign can prevail in a Presidential election is a different question entirely. I think they can.
But I want to turn your focus away from Election 2012 for a moment and toward some observations about civility itself.
I want to suggest to you that sincere political civility grows out of a type of modesty. Now, no one who runs for the office of President of the United States can be all that modest, at least in that word’s most common sense, denoting someone with a self-effacing attitude. You have to have a pretty darn good opinion of yourself to even consider that you might be the man or woman best suited to be the self-appointed “Leader of the Free World.” No, I’m talking about a different kind of modesty — a type of modesty that others (especially these days) often mistake for indecision or the absence of principled commitment.
I’m referring to intellectual modesty, which begins with reluctant acknowledgment that we’re incapable of getting every decision of consequence right and then extends to the conscious realization that our intellectual “opponents” are not going to have everything of consequence wrong. I’ve referred to it elsewhere as the willingness to give serious and sincere consideration to opposing viewpoints. Learned Hand, a famous federal judge who I’ve quoted before, referred to it as rational skepticism, and had this to say:
“I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” I should like to have that written over the portals of every church, every school, and every courthouse, and, may I say, of every legislative body in the United States. I should like to have every court begin, “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, I think we may be mistaken.”
Now, skepticism clearly ceases to be very valuable at the point where it subsumes belief and devolves into relativistic cynicism. The world needs true believers and crusaders. A doubtful leader is a contradiction in terms. But the world needs crusaders for causes and outcomes and not for systems of thought. Intellectually modest leaders — at least the good ones — are crusaders for causes and have room, with all their commitment, to acknowledge that their “opponent’s” disagreement with their message does not necessarily mean disregard for their goals. Why? Because they consciously leave open the possibility that they might be wrong about the way they are trying to do something — even if they don’t think it’s likely — and the creation of even that little bit of space allows them to assume the best about people and to learn from their “opponents” rather than continually being frustrated by them. It allows them to actually contemplate the possibility that they and their opponent may be striving for the same goals and that, just maybe, their opponent, and not themselves, might be the one who understands the right way to go about it.
Forgive me for slipping a little bit of religion into this political forum as I finish. This is, after all, a Utah-focused blog, no matter how wide-ranging and abstract my tendencies
The Christian scriptures talk quite a bit about pride as a sin and humility as a virtue. C.S. Lewis said that the core feature of pride is enmity, which Dictionary.com defines as “a feeling or condition of hostility; hatred; ill will; animosity; antagonism.” Pride is, by nature, hostile, competitive and dismissive. As a result, it sets up an absolute barrier to serious consideration of anything that comes from someone we regard as inferior to ourselves. I would suggest to you that our current lack of political civility emanates from unchecked pride in ourselves or our own chosen system of political thought.
Let’s check that pride a bit and create a little space for humility. Not more than is warranted or desirable, but even a little bit would go a long way.