The perils of civility

Imagine Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming, "Let civility roll down like waters, and politeness like a mighty stream."

This, alas, would be how we'd remember King's speeches if they'd been written by our current Democratic senators.

It's been painful to watch the Democrats roll over and play dead for George W. Bush since his coronation. They don't seem to realize that they can stand firm without reenacting Newt Gingrich's scorched-earth destructiveness. They might do well to remember (or learn) some basic lessons of nonviolence: When facing a bully, you don't have to demonize. You can speak to your opponents' core humanity, and even at times work together. But you don't have to give your cooperation just because they tell you to do something. And you have to honestly challenge actions you oppose.

It may seem odd to compare our Senate millionaires to civil rights freedom riders, the massed citizens who brought down illegitimate governments in Serbia and the Philippines, or the Seattle protesters against the World Trade Organization. But if the next four years are going to bring anything but a continual rollback of gains that took decades to achieve, Democrats are going to have to learn to draw the line.

They don't have to go to jail. They don't have to sit in, block streets, or be beaten by police. Unlike the rest of us, they don't have to march, write letters, and organize to be heard, although the more they reach out to their engaged constituents, the stronger they will be. They merely have to use a power that they already have, the filibuster in the Senate, to stop any of Mr. Bush's actions that will damage our common future.

Why did the Democrats cave and refuse to block the nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general? They wanted to be bipartisan and work together. They deferred to Bush's presidential prerogatives, and to the collegiality of the Senate.

Missouri Democrat Sen. Jean Carnahan had asked them not to filibuster, since Ashcroft didn't challenge her appointment to her dead husband's Senate seat. Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold refused even to vote against Ashcroft, because he needs colleagues across the aisle to pass campaign finance reform. They wanted their politics to be civil, not a permanent state of war.

Civility has its place, in politics and in general. But it's what Italian essayist Natalia Ginsburg has called a "little virtue," not a great one. As Mr. King made clear, civility must be subordinate to the larger goal of justice.

Learning from King, it's far better to spell out the destructiveness of Bush's policies than to call him "dumb." King respected the core humanity of even the worst segregationists, but held them responsible for their choices. It's both politically and morally wiser to focus on whether our leaders create a more or less equitable society than to create slash-and-burn campaigns against their character. But it's not a gratuitous personal attack, just being honest about Ashcroft's past, to point out that he blocked efforts to boost voter registration in inner-city St. Louis, blocked school desegregation until forced to back down by a judge, and gave a fawning interview to a neo-Confederate magazine, Southern Partisan.

Likewise, the Democrats have an obligation to point out that Bush's tax plan will overwhelmingly benefit that tiny minority of Americans who already control far more wealth than all the rest of us combined. Justice demands accountability.

Pleas for bipartisan collegiality don't excuse cooperation with truly dubious actions, especially since this is no normal presidency. Bush lost the popular vote, we need to remind ourselves, by 540,000 votes. He was handed a victory when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his cohorts abandoned their own long-proclaimed principles of states' rights to block the reexamination of contested and discarded ballots. When Justice Scalia cynically used the rhetoric of equal protection to hand Bush the victory, it mocked the thousands of African-American registered voters who talked of their ballots being tossed or of being turned away from the Florida polls.

The Democrats can bury this history, as they mostly have so far. Or they can use it to refute any notion that Bush has a mandate. Every time he talks about fulfilling his campaign promises, they can remind him, straightforwardly, that a majority of Americans rejected his path. But they need to do more than hold out their bowls, like Dickens's orphans pleading for gruel, hoping for a few morsels of bipartisan decency.

They might remember that social progress can roll backward as well as forward. And that the last election where the popular loser was enshrined, that of Rutherford B. Hayes, brought about nearly a century of racial subordination by ending Reconstruction and ushering in Jim Crow. In fact, the current Republican base is inseparable from the legacy of that retreat.

In the wake of his Ashcroft victory, Bush is now pushing a series of highly regressive proposals, from his tax cut to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He's already banned aid to international family planning agencies that even mention abortion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's missile defense system risks a quarter century of arms treaties to give pork to Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Had the Democrats blocked Ashcroft, they'd have sent a signal that this presidency is different, that they will insist their concerns be heeded and respected, not just condescended to with sentimental rhetoric. They'd have made clear that certain reversals of justice will not be permitted, and that if Bush wants to make his mark on history, he must address the concerns of the majority of Americans who opposed him.

Instead, the Democrats face the next round of destructive proposals with less strength and momentum, having angered and frustrated their core supporters, and with the fundamental questions about Bush's legitimacy further buried.

Eventually, as the Republicans continue to push, I hope the Democrats will discover some lessons about nonviolent perseverance and finally block some of the most dangerous proposals - either by convincing a few moderate Republicans to cross over, or by using the filibuster. The sooner they can do this, the sooner they can begin to reclaim their power to head this country down wiser paths.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of 'Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time' (St Martin's Press).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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