The left and the right cry out for civility, but maybe that’s asking for too much

Onlookers stressed by the tenor of political discourse want to know how to get back to the way things were before, when public life seemed roundly governed by gentlemanly etiquette. But what if what’s happening is more the rule than the exception? We may have to reconcile ourselves to the idea that this is just what liberal democracy feels like.

Teresa M. Bejan’s excellent book “Mere Civility: Disagreements and the Limits of Toleration” certainly suggests that early modern experiments in liberal democracy felt hellaciously brittle and tense thanks largely to breakdowns in public reason. And the American experience of the 19th and early 20th centuries — complete with riotous strikes, armed conflict between organized labor and its enemies, anarchist terrorism and more — was certainly no calm discussion between peers.

It’s possible that the “postwar consensus” — those halcyon days when Americans seemed largely happy with one another — was actually a rare and temporary calm period triggered by the unique circumstances of the top half of the 20th century. If that is indeed the case, we need to focus more on forming a strategy for a new political era than demanding a return to the tones and techniques of one lost to time.

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