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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema arrives for a hearing

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) arrives for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee markup in the Dirksen Building on Wednesday on June 16, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Uncivil Politics

Elite demands for democratic respectability serve only to protect an unjust system.

Peter Bloom

The tension between progressives and “Centrists” has broken out, once again, in the open as the Left is pressuring and demanding that so-called “moderates” stop their obstruction of a much needed (and already compromised) 3.5 trillion “build back better” human infrastructure plan. While many in the media may dismiss this as typical Washington Beltway drama, it actually reflects deeper political anger at politicians from both Parties whose actual allegiance is to economic elites. This frustration has boiled over and taken almost surreal turns as recently immigration activists followed Senator Kyrsten Sinema into the bathroom to protest her blockage of the bill for reasons that appear to less with any serious ideological objection and more in pleasing the corporate donor base.

In the aftermath of this instance, politicians from across the aisle castigated the protesters for crossing the line of acceptable political dissent. It was understandably deemed an invasion of privacy. Sinema put out a statement that “Yesterday's behavior was not legitimate protest. It is unacceptable for activist organizations to instruct their members to jeopardize themselves by engaging in unlawful activities such as gaining entry to closed university buildings, disrupting learning environments, and filming students in a restroom." The Activist Group responded by Twitter that “We wouldn't have to resort to confronting @senatorsinema around Phx if she took meetings with the communities that elected her. She's been completely inaccessible. We're sick of the political games, stop playing with our lives. ‘Build back better, back the bill!’"

What is a greater threat—uncivil demands for justice or the civil preservation of injustice?

The issue came to a head when leading progressive Bernie Sanders refused to sign a letter of support by elected officials criticizing the protest as “plainly inappropriate and unacceptable” unless it also included the disappointment many felt over Rightwing political stances. Specifically, they wanted to add “While we hope Senator Sinema will change her position on prescription drug reform and support a major [budget] reconciliation bill...”, which other congressional leaders declined to do. These tensions were exacerbated by the recent discovery that Sinema teaches a course at Arizona State University on “Developing Grants and Fundraising” that tellingly includes such topics as “corporate giving” and how to attract “large individual donors” as well as “opportunistic fundraising”.

Yet this controversy also raises questions over what is truly impolite and unacceptable - the temporary discomfort felt by Sinema as a privileged politician or the pain she experienced as a homeless child who had to live in an abandoned gas station just to survive? Why is the “inappropriate” behavior of protestors invading her privacy given so much more attention than the indignity felt by so many in a system where their basic access to food, shelter, and opportunity is scoffed at even by Democrats as unacceptable parts of an irresponsible “entitlement society”.  What is a greater threat - uncivil demands for justice or the civil preservation of injustice?

The Real Threat of Democratic Respectability

At first glance, the call for civility can seem to be a laudable and welcome response to a civic culture marked by growing ideological polarization and political rancor. The attempted far-Right coup of January 6th has only intensified desires for a more respectful and less divisive politics. Digging deeper, the appeal to politeness is a strategic ploy to distract from the very real violence and exploitation of the current status quo.

Indeed, there is often an inverse relationship between formal rituals of respectability and the harm perpetuated by the system they represent. It is no coincidence that the bloody empires of the recent past were linked to cultures of aristocratic pomp and circumstance. Or that genocidal wars are perpetuated by militaries with otherwise strict codes of internal conduct. In the same way, legitimate expectations of democratic civility espoused by elite politicians and the media are transformed into empty rituals to provide moral cover to the structural inequalities and daily inhumanities experienced by the majority of the population.

What "moderates" present is a dangerous choice for US voters and the world at large.

Reflected is a dangerous type of progressive "respectability politics". The term traditionally refers to the attempt by historically marginalized groups to defy dominant stereotypes and conform to mainstream culture. This personal and collective strategy of deference can be weaponized by elites to police these communities in their demands for equality, justice, and systemic change. It shifts their justified righteous anger into a bad faith moral condemnation of their "poor manners" and immoral methods. At the beginning of the 20th century, suffragettes struggling for women’s rights were publicly mocked in the press “for stepping out of their traditional role as wives and mothers”. In the new millennium, protests against police brutality and racism are condemned as out of control riots. Grassroot efforts to occupy Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis were popularly derided for being "anarchic" and, therefore, unserious. The war crimes of George W. Bush are lost in the public spectacle of an Iraqi journalist throwing a shoe at him.

The moral indignation of Sinema is similarly aimed at muzzling justified progressive critiques of her corporate corruption and the genuine harm it is causing. She represents the growing threat of a Democratic respectability politics where "moderates" in the Party are trying to stop real change by prioritizing the need for “civility” above all else - including justice. At its heart, it is a cynical embrace of public ritual to mask a brutal and unfair reality rigged in favor of supposedly honorable and respectable elites. 

Challenging an Unjust Civility Politics

In an ideal political culture, civility and democracy should go hand in hand. A core feature of democracy is the willingness to listen openly and deliberate respectfully with those you may disagree with. The possibility of expressing and allowing for real differences and genuine alternatives relies in no small part on principles and practices of mutual respect.

By contrast, the nostalgic promise of Biden and others in the political establishment to return to a more courteous time before Trump is both morally dubious and politically troubling. As a Presidential candidate, Biden offered a reassuring sense of nostalgia wrapped up in the language of civility:

“The American people want their government to work, and I don’t think that’s too much for them to ask…The country is sick of the division. They’re sick of the fighting. They’re sick of the childish behavior. There isn’t a single person among you,” Biden continued, gaining speed, jabbing his finger into the podium, “or anywhere in this country, who could get away with that in their jobs. All they want is their president, their senators, their representatives, to do their jobs, just do your jobs!”

In office, he has recognized the power of progressives and moved beyond the limits of a Democratic respectability politics for trying to achieve real (if at times too small) reform and change.

No doubt, the odious language and actions of Trump were a modern nadir of US democracy in terms of basic decency. Yet they sprung from a more fundamental democratic crisis. It must never be forgotten that the sacred value of politely "reaching across the aisle" and fostering bipartisanship gave birth to quite uncivil policies of endless wars, mass incarceration, and the dismantling of the social safety net. The current refusal to end the filibuster or pass meaningful progressive legislation, has only contributed to this disillusionment with both democracy and Democrats.

Genuine political civility only arises in conditions of actual social and economic equality. According to the renowned political theorist Professor Albert Weale, it requires social contracts among political equals that are committed to the protection of "common interests" and often requires a healthy and palatable dose of fear by elites of the mass power of citizens. Just as there is no real peace without justice so to with civility and democracy.

What "moderates" present is a dangerous choice for US voters and the world at large. On the one side, is a perfectly polite and tragically all to normal imperialist oligarchy. On the other is uncivil disobedience defined by intolerance and mob rule. Neither option is the least bit acceptable or respectable to the interests and rights of the vast majority of humans. What is truly needed is a radical democracy that cares as much about human welfare, rights, and equality as it does hollow displays of “respectability” and “civility”.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom is a Professor at the University of Essex in the UK who books include “Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization” (2016), “The CEO Society”, and most recently “Guerrilla Democracy: Mobile Power and Revolution in the 21st Century.”

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