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What Are These Civility Arguments Really About?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Hello! You all ready for some chatting!?!?!?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’m ready for the pizza we ordered to arrive, but am happy to chat in the meantime.

micah: Today’s topic: Does civility in politics matter? The most immediate cause for this question is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, being asked to leave a restaurant (and all the attendant hand-wringing). But obviously incivility has been a topic of conversation in politics ever since Donald Trump came onto the scene.

I want to try answer this question in two ways:

  1. Does civility matter in terms of a well-functioning democracy?
  2. Does civility matter to voters?

And, just to make this as complicated as possible, let’s try to answer those questions as they pertain to four different cases of incivility. From Nate:

  • Powerful people being uncivil to other powerful people.
  • Powerful people being uncivil to non-powerful people.
  • Non-powerful people being uncivil to powerful people.
  • Non-powerful people being uncivil to other non-powerful people.

In any case, let’s start off super highbrow and talk about the well-being of our democracy!

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I want to be clear up top that there’s been a lot of talk about this on cable, Twitter, etc., over the past couple of days. It’s obviously a thing people are fascinated by, though I wasn’t entirely keen on joining in on the Huckabee Sanders/restaurant news cycle. As a journalist, I think it’s interesting to watch people hash out whether there is such a thing as pushing protest boundaries too far in the U.S. An active time for our republic, to say the least.

micah: That seems to be a big debate in the Democratic Party: What’s the right way to resist Trump — adopt his tactics or draw a sharp contrast?

natesilver: I mean … I will say that I’m also sort of fascinated by the story and have a lot of takes on it, some of which I’ll reveal here and some of which you shouldn’t really care about. But I’m not sure the story is nearly as newsworthy as you’d infer from the amount of coverage it’s getting.

clare.malone: ^^^cosign

micah: So you all don’t take it as a sign of a deteriorating democracy?

clare.malone: The very fact that active protest is involved means no, I don’t see that as deteriorating democracy.

That is one of the fundamental rights granted in a democracy, this right of protest. People are certainly exercising that right! That’s at least some sign of health.

But you can also have that sign of health (protest) exist alongside symptoms of deterioration (i.e., the president saying that due process should be thrown out in some cases).

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The Huckabee Sanders story is interesting in part because it captures a lot of what people are thinking about right now. So it’s important in that vein. Questions like:

  1. Is the Trump administration, particularly in regard to its immigration policies, uniquely bad and outside of political norms, which would mean that new rules of engagement are needed to deal with a real moral threat, or are these really just the left-right political debates that we always have?
  2. Is being conservative and being pro-Trump so unpopular in certain circles that you face the kind of social sanctions that blacks, gays, women, etc., once faced?

Those feel like the underlying questions here, and that’s why the Red Hen restaurant story has taken off.

natesilver: Maybe we should go through the categories one at a time?

micah: Yeah, so to go back to Nate’s groups, I’d argue that:

  • Powerful people being uncivil to other powerful people: bad for democracy
  • Powerful people being uncivil to non-powerful people: bad for democracy
  • Non-powerful people being uncivil to powerful people: good for democracy
  • Non-powerful people being uncivil to other non-powerful people: bad for democracy

And the Huckabee Sanders thing falls into No. 3.

clare.malone: I’m curious to hear you explain that first answer, Micah.

I mean … aren’t presidential campaigns and elections in general all about powerful people being uncivil to each other? What would you call attack ads?

It’s a free country. Powerful people are allowed to be rude to each other and forceful in expressing their views.

That’s not some new Trump-era thing.

micah: I don’t think debate is inherently uncivil.

natesilver: But is, for example, the Republican decision to refuse to have a vote on Merrick Garland uncivil?

micah: No.

natesilver: Oh, come on! It’s a lot more important than the Red Hen.

And I think it definitely falls into the civility bucket.

micah: It’s 100 percent more important, but the Garland thing has nothing to do with civility!

clare.malone: Yeah, Garland to me is different — a perversion of democratic norms, right? That is, giving a nominee a vote is something that, up until recently, legislators basically treated almost as a matter of law.

Powerful people undermining democratic institutions is bad for democracy.

micah: Yes.

Nate, you have a weird definition of civility.

Like, Trump calling people names is uncivil.

natesilver: So civility is just politeness? Then it’s really stupid, I’d argue.

perry: I assume civility means, say, Trump’s tweet last year suggesting MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski had plastic surgery that went badly.

micah: That dude who yelled, “You lie!” at then-President Obama — that was uncivil.

natesilver: And that mattered about 1/1,000,000th as much as the Republican strategy on Garland.

micah: But that’s the point … we’re debating how much civility matters. That the GOP’s Garland gambit mattered isn’t really worth a debate — of course it mattered.

But actually, in the aggregate I think civility does too.

clare.malone: Nate, most people would argue that civility is politeness.

micah: The more clown-show-ish our political figures are, the less respect they get, the less people care?

Something like that?

clare.malone: Or like: What are the proper bounds of speech and protest?

To me, civility seems to be mostly a way we try to govern each other’s speech. We might have First Amendment rights to speech, but does some speech abuse norms? Does it cross boundaries we’re better off not crossing?

Does that seem right?

natesilver: I dunno, I guess I think civility ought to encompass some notion of acting in good faith.

clare.malone: Maybe the fact that we can’t agree on a definition gets to how many different threads people are weaving into this debate.

natesilver: I just think the civility debate is even stupider if it’s about whether someone calls the president or one of his advisers a mean name.

micah: That’s part of the the debate.

natesilver: If it’s about saying, “We no longer share common ground,” that’s a bit more substantive.

clare.malone: OK, here’s what I’ll say:

The Founding Fathers identified from the get-go that factions and parties could be dangerous to their idea of democracy — in that as factions and partisanship deepen when political leaders demean their party opponents, and that is bad.

perry: Some of the political science is in this realm shows that the problem with powerful people being uncivil (whether to other elites or regular people ) is that powerful people and their partisanship influences the rest of the public. My worry would be that Trump’s racist remarks make people who are white nationalists feel more comfortable about being public with their views. If the leader of “my team,” says that stuff, maybe I should say it too. See this video that is going viral of a woman calling Mexicans, “Rapists. Animals. Drug dealers.”

natesilver: That’s in category No. 2, though — not category No. 1. I don’t think there’s that much consequence to Trump describing Nancy Pelosi in unflattering terms or vice versa, or something.

perry: How Trump describes Rep. Maxine Waters is perhaps more problematic;

she doesn’t seem to have a low IQ to me.

natesilver: Also, he seemed to imply a threat toward Waters:

And it’s not the first time that Trump has seemed to at least tacitly endorse violence. He also did it during the campaign, directed toward protestors at his rallies.

That was one of the more disgraceful moments in press coverage during the campaign — that this violent speech was not treated as a particularly big deal.

perry: When Obama said Kanye West was a “jackass” — that was uncivil, I suppose. Was that bad for democracy? Not sure. I’m trying trying to think of instances pre-Trump when the power dynamics were different (meaning a liberal was being uncivil to a less-powerful adversary).

clare.malone: Kanye was outside the political discourse. So it was different.

natesilver: Is The White House Correspondents’ dinner an example of Category 1 civility? (Powerful people being uncivil to other powerful people.) If so, then fuck civility.

micah: I don’t know. The “civility doesn’t matter” argument kinda seems like the default FiveThirtyEight stance because a lot of the people worrying about political civility are blowhards/preposterous/wrong about almost everything ever.

But I sorta think it matters.

clare.malone: Well, to my point about deepening factions above, I think it does.

micah: I think I’d put the correspondents dinner in the unpowerful vs. powerful bucket.

natesilver: You’d have to go on a case-by-case basis. The media as an institution is extremely powerful. The New York Times or The Washington Post is fairly powerful. An individual journalist working for one of those pubs probably isn’t powerful. A small paper in the middle of Kansas isn’t powerful.

micah: A comic isn’t powerful.

clare.malone: And a lot of that stems from politicians’ rhetoric over time.

Dog whistles and the like.

Using speech to subtly incite racial hatred is bad for democracy.

perry: I’ll be honest: It’s hard for me to think of some general civility rules or norms absent the content or context of a specific event. Telling your nearly all-white supporters that a black congresswoman is stupid is really problematic. But if Jose Andres (the famous chef who operates several restaurants in D.C.) kicked Huckabee Sanders out of one of his restaurants …. Well, they are both powerful. I don’t think I’m as concerned about that. D.C. is full of restaurants. But I’m thinking out loud. I’m not sure what I said makes sense.

Or, I’m not sure it’s intellectually consistent, at least.

I think I’m suggesting a norm around being very anti-racist, and that would have different implications depending on the person’s racial views.

clare.malone: Yeah.

What Perry said.

It’s hard to make sweeping decisions.

micah: Shouldn’t we leave aside threats of violence and racist demagoguery? Those are clearly bad. Bad on their own and bad for democracy.

natesilver: Yeah, Jose Andres is enough of a political figure that I think he’s in a different category than the owner of some rando restaurant.

perry: We can’t really leave aside racist stuff, because this whole debate is in part about whether everything Trump touches and does is racial and to some extent racist, particularly on immigration. But I get what Micah is saying.

clare.malone: What a lot of people are grappling with in the Sanders case are our normal terms of politeness.

It makes a lot of people uncomfortable to think about a person in their off-duty hours getting harassed. It’s human nature to feel empathy in those moments.

But public figures are public figures in their off time too. So people are battling normal bounds of politeness with the all-encompassing idea of public-figurehood.

micah: And the counterargument is that Trump is so beyond the pale that anyone working for him doesn’t deserve, I guess, standard decencies.

perry: I’m guessing that Gary Cohn (who was Trump’s top economic adviser and a big player in the tax policy overhaul) will not be targeted by liberal protestors at restaurants, but that Stephen Miller, a Trump adviser who reportedly pushed for the family separation policy, will get protests, even after he quits Team Trump. The reason for that difference, I think, is that Miller has been deeply involved in the racial and cultural parts of Trump’s agenda.

micah: Ah, yeah. I see what you’re saying, Perry.

clare.malone: Listen, one of the old saws of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

It’s something that journalists think about a lot — viewing a person as a person, and viewing them in their public role. And deciding to view them in their public role, even if you see them up close, as a person, is one of the important things about the job.

Now Americans are having to think about that a little more if they’re the sorts of people inclined to protest right now.

micah: Yeah. Also, it’s very easy to call for civility as a white man who’s comfortable financially. I’m not under any threat, really.

natesilver: I do wonder if women pay a greater price than men for speaking out in certain ways. Like, Peter Fonda said some vile stuff, and it didn’t seem to get half as much attention as, say, Samantha Bee.

Former press secretary Sean Spicer was portrayed as goofball and a loser, but I don’t think there’s the same level of vitriol toward him as toward Sanders.

clare.malone: Well. I think a lot of this gets into the gender dynamics that are woman-on-woman, right?

Huckabee Sanders/Bee.

perry: I would emphasize that the Samantha Bee controversy happened in the same week as Roseanne Barr getting fired over making a racist remark. (Note: FiveThirtyEight and ABC Entertainment, which aired “Roseanne,” are both part of Disney.) There is a real desire on the right for liberals to be punished for their racial and cultural views in the way that conservatives perceive that they are punished.

clare.malone: You have women who both A) think that Sanders is upholding the lies of an administration that is cruel to families and women, and B) still don’t like seeing another woman be called a name that they themselves might have been called or find nasty.

micah: So, have we convinced Nate that this kind of stuff is bad for our democracy?

natesilver: No, Micah, not really, you haven’t. I mean, I think racism and misogyny and incitements to violence are really bad for democracy. It’s bad for democracy when Trump demonizes the press. But I don’t think civility — if we’re narrowly defining it as politeness — is that much of a problem per se.

clare.malone: So are we drawing a line between “civility” and “democracy-threatening speech”?

I think that’s actually useful.

micah: I think it makes sense to — again, just because the latter is sorta by-definition bad.

clare.malone: A) Some speech is rude, and B) some speech foreshadows violence/calls on demeaning histories of violence or oppression.

natesilver: Yeah. That’s sort of what I was trying to get at before. I’m not saying that talking about “civility” is dumb. But I’m saying that people focus on exactly the wrong stuff — the least-important parts of it.

micah: I see, Nate.

natesilver: If we had a more expansive definition of civility, I’d argue it’s a much more useful concept.

micah: OK, that makes more sense.

Before I was like, “WTF is Nate talking about?!”

clare.malone: I don’t think we want “civility” to be more broadly defined … maybe we should come up with more specific speech designations.

Like, “Oh, that was sort of rude”

  1. “Oh, that was sort of undermining our democracy” (something snappier, of course).

natesilver: I also think there’s a lot of rather explicit both sides-ism in coverage of the Red Hen event.

The big newspapers are paranoid about being perceived as in the tank for liberals, so they really relish the opportunity to scold liberals.

micah: Our colleague Julia Azari had a really good piece differentiating between norms and (small-d democratic) values.

Some norms are closely linked to values, others aren’t.

clare.malone: In the words of Destiny’s Child: “You know I’m not gon’ diss you on the internet

/ Cause my mama taught me better than that.”

micah: But let me take one more, common-sense-y try at arguing that civility (politeness) matters: If the FiveThirtyEight office were like the national political debate — full of ad hominem attacks, people not talking to each other, kicking each other out of meetings — I don’t think we’d be able to publish a website every day.

Why doesn’t that apply to democracy writ large?

clare.malone: Well, citizens are free to speak as they wish (minus hate speech).

Free speech is a defining right of democracy.

I think a lot of civic institutions end up governing common people’s uncivil speech.

So, in some ways, this debate that the Democrats are having right now is good for the push-pull of polite vs. impolite protest.

You want that balance.

natesilver: I feel like one of the canonical (and at this point even perhaps slightly apocryphal) examples of civility is how Democratic and Republican senators vehemently disagree with one another but are nonetheless friends in real life and go out and get drunk together after the vote, etc.

clare.malone: Getting drunk helps.

natesilver: It’s some sense that “we’re all in this together.”

That was the sense that Obama tried to cultivate and that Trump very much hasn’t.

micah: That attitude is very helpful to have in a newsroom. I imagine the same is true for a country.

clare.malone: Right. The idea of “this is a family fight” vs. “you are from a different country and I don’t even know you.”

micah: So, as a starting point, why wouldn’t we think it’s helpful for a democracy too?

clare.malone: What’s the “it” there?

micah: Politeness/we’re all in this together.

natesilver: The fourth type of incivility, non-powerful people being uncivil toward one another, is maybe the most serious one, I think.

On the other hand … for better or worse, Trump does seem to have increased political participation.

clare.malone: I actually think the fourth type of incivility is a lot less common.

micah: Non-powerful vs. non-powerful?

clare.malone: Yeah.

I think people are generally pretty polite to each other, despite what terrible moments captured on camera phones might tell us.

natesilver: It’s the one there’s also the least data or information about.

clare.malone: Yeah.

Which means we could be over- or underestimating

natesilver: Like, instead of one of these “Trump voters still love Trump” pieces, I’d love for local papers to talk about debates in their communities and how they’ve changed, if at all.

Again, though, I think I’d trade off civility for increased participation.

micah: I’ve heard stories of people, for example, having “no Trump supporters” in their online dating profiles.

clare.malone: That’s the internet, not in person.

micah: Ah, interesting.

perry: Politico did an interesting piece about how Trump staffers in D.C. are often shunned in the dating scene.

clare.malone: I guess I was thinking that in-person interactions are generally pretty polite and respectful.

micah: I think that’s prob right.

clare.malone: I mean, we could have a whole separate debate about whether the Internet is bad for democracy.

natesilver: I’ve … maybe only once or twice in all my years covering politics had a nasty encounter in person.

micah: OK, to wrap, let’s just talk about how voters view civility.

Do they care?

natesilver: Trump would be an argument that they don’t.

Or at least, if you can set up “I’m honest” or “I’m authentic” in contrast to civility, that tends to be an appealing argument to voters.

clare.malone: I’ve heard people say stuff along the lines of, “I might not like what Trump is saying, but at least he’s being transparent about what he actually thinks.”

micah: This is from a CBS News poll (taken after the shooting at the Congressional baseball game):

clare.malone: I would say Americans are not wrong that things have gotten less civil, per that CBS poll! I do think they care about the degradation of politeness norms. It makes reading the news, just as a baseline, much less pleasant.

perry: Isn’t Nate’s analysis of Trump’s tweets and them appearing to hurt his poll numbers a suggestion that civility matters in politics? One of defining features of Trump’s tweets is that they are uncivil, right?

natesilver: But isn’t political participation increasing in almost every form that you’d measure it?

micah: Yeah, Trump is less popular than we’d expect based on the economy and no major wars, right?

So his incivility could be part of what’s driving that gap.

Though surely it’s also racism, sexism, etc.

natesilver: Well I don’t know. Like, is this kind of tweet harmful to Trump?

perry: Lol.

Good point.

natesilver: It’s definitely uncivil, but it’s not racist or sexist.

micah: See, I think it is harmful to him — in the aggregate.

clare.malone: “While not at all presidential … ”


natesilver: That was one of his best tweets, to be honest.

clare.malone: I for sure lol’d.

micah: It’s not a huge effect, but I think there’s a small-but-not-insubstantial group of voters who either consciously or subconsciously care about the president being “presidential.”

Final thoughts?

clare.malone: “Don’t tweet” is my final thought

natesilver: I mean … look, at a base level, Trump is quite unpopular, despite the economy being quite good. So all the peripheral stuff matters. I just think it’s hard to separate “civility” out from everything else in that bucket.

micah: Take us home, Clare.

clare.malone: And I kinda mean it, the “don’t tweet” thing. To my point about about how the internet might be a little bad for democracy, well, I think it might be! There are lots of good uses for words and speech (I happen to be a person who makes a living off of both of those things), but anger finds its easiest outlet through the keyboard sometimes. And sometimes that anger is backed up by actual productive action — protest, involvement, whatever. But sometimes it’s just anger flushed out through a keyboard and that’s it. Talk to people in person.


Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.