For this system to work, Rawls argued, public debate must be free and open for people to clearly explain how their policy convictions can be justified according to the shared beliefs at the heart of a democratic society. Rawls called the obligation to adhere to these rules of discourse “the duty of civility”: If citizens in general, and politicians especially, hide and obfuscate their arguments, then people’s ability to give their informed consent to the administration disappears.
Only when debate strays outside those boundaries—by, for example, a President who is well-documented as telling more lies than any in modern history–does it become “uncivil” because that lying and deception—and not harsh words—presents the true danger to our society. So while CNN here and the Washington Post earlier today are focusing on politeness and gentility, they are ignoring the massive “incivility” that constantly emanates from this entire Administration.
Our foremost political philosopher, in short, didn’t see “civility” in politics as identical to politeness in everyday conversation. Rather, political civility is about treating members of the opposition like reasonable people. It seems more “civil,” in this view, to honestly state disagreements with individuals, even impolitely, than to try to trick them.