Stephen L. Carter

On Civility and the Etiquette of Democracy, Part I

VTR Date: June 30, 1998

Guest: Carter, Stephen L.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Stephen Carter
Title: On Civility and The Etiquette of Democracy
VTR: 6/30/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the other evening, as I read through the transcripts of the four previous Open Minds that today’s guest and I have done together over the years, I found myself once again marveling at the intelligence, balance, sweet reasonableness, and, if you will, the civility that Stephen L. Carter, Yale’s noted William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law inevitably brings to the controversial issues that he also addresses so forcefully and well. Indeed, Civility is itself the title of one of Professor Carter’s new books, this one published by Basic Books. We’ll parse it first. And if today we don’t quite get to his The Dissent of the Governed and Meditation on Law, Religion and Loyalty, published by Harvard University Press, then I’ll try to get Professor Carter to do still another Open Mind on that intriguing study later on.

First, however, note that the subtitle of Civility is Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy. And I would ask my guest first to share with us precisely what he means by The Etiquette of Democracy.

CARTER: You know, a long time ago, Alexis de Tocqueville described democracy as in some sense “a form of manners.” People have forgotten that bit of de Tocqueville, but I kind of like it, because, when you think about it, what are manners but rules for relating to other people. And what is democracy but a big set of rules, if you will, for relating to other people. So you can think about everything from respecting the election returns to the flip side of that, which is the responsibility of voting, as a complex set of manners. A set of rules by which we interact in order to make a democratic society work. The reason I discuss that in a book on civility is that I worry that if civility weakens, then the glue which, if you will, helps hold this construction of rules together, itself begins to fall apart.

HEFFNER: But now, in The Etiquette of Democracy, all of the things that a la Emily Post you indicate are part of that etiquette go further than the question of civility. Or maybe they are subsumed all under civility. What are they?

CARTER: What I would say is they go further than the question of manners. When I talk about civility, I have something much deeper in mind than simply good manners, though I do think that manners matter. But civility, I say in the book, is the sum of all the sacrifices that we make for the sake of living together. And what I have in mind there is the sacrifices that we make when we do things on behalf of other people or on behalf of society, or refrain from doing things that we feel like doing for the sake of continuing to live in our common community.

HEFFNER: Why does religion play such a large role in the etiquette?

CARTER: Traditionally, religion has been one of the forces in human civilization that has helped us learn to restrain our impulses. If you go back to some of the earliest discussions of civility back in the Sixteenth Century when the various systems that had helped control social life were falling apart — societies in Europe were becoming very violent in the early Sixteenth Century — religion is one of the forces that was appealed to try to provide people with some sense of why they ought to restrain themselves. And one of the things, I think, in America today that we need is some set of institutions — and I think religions are well suited to it — but some set of institutions that will help call us to the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations beyond what we ourselves might want to do or not want to do.

I quote in the book a software entrepreneur who a few years ago said he didn’t think he should have to give any money to the poor, because if God wanted the poor to have money, he’d have given it to them in the first place. I think this is the kind of attitude that is all too common, that somehow when we share with others they are doing something to us, they are taking something from us. It’s hard for us to think about the social obligations we have to others, and my hope is that America’s religions can help raise their voices so that we can understand that.

HEFFNER: Yes, but it’s so interesting to me that you say it is your hope that America’s religions can help us. Religion plays such a basic role here that it’s not as though you’re reaching out for an institution or a part of American life to help you achieve the civility you want; you say that religion is basic to that civility.

CARTER: I do think that’s largely true. I don’t think it’s impossible for a non-religious person to be a civil person, to be a person who’s self-sacrificing. And I don’t think that all religious people certainly are civil or self-sacrificing. But if the heart, certainly, of the great Western religious traditions is a sense of obligations to others, sometimes captured in the idea of love of neighbor, or captured in the idea of the Golden Rule, but an idea that we have obligations to others which have nothing to do with whether we like those others, we have obligations in times even to those we may think of as our enemies. And in a democracy the first of those obligations is the obligation of the simple respect that says you are a co-equal human being, co-equal part of God’s creation, if you will, and that equality means that, just as I want you to take seriously what I have to say in our political debates, I must take seriously what you have to say in our political debates, beginning with that basic bit of the etiquette of democracy which is built, I believe, firmly on the Western religious traditions. I think we can go on and build from there.

HEFFNER: All right. Because I would hate to see you secularize Carter’s new book.

CARTER: [Laughter] not going to happen.

HEFFNER: Okay. Because, I mean, there is…there is so much that you make clear to the reader in this book that you feel so strongly about in terms of the basic influence that religion is. And it is almost as if it is a sine qua non. You say it’s not impossible for someone who is not irreligious to be civil or to understand your emphasis upon civility. I feel that that’s not quite true.

CARTER: Well, I think it’s not impossible; I do think it’s harder. But one of my great examples in the book, when we speak of religion and civility, is the Abolitionist movement. The Abolitionist movement, people often forget today, was very much a church-based movement. The leading Abolitionists were basically preachers. Certainly the people who agitated for the freedom of the slaves in the late Eighteenth and the first part of the Nineteenth Century were mainly preachers. And what’s interesting about their preaching, which was very much biblically based, was that they called upon their audiences not just to free the slaves to be nice, but they said this is part of love of neighbor, “You have to put them on the same plane as yourself. You have to ask yourself, if you were in their shoes, what would you feel the rest of your fellow citizens owed you.” That was the way to phrase the question. And the reason to phrase the question that way, the Abolitionists argued, is because they are co-equal members of God’s creation. And I think that nowadays a lot of the religious voices we hear in public life unfortunately are voices that are a lot less interested, it seems, in saying, “Look, we’re all co-equal members of God’s creation. What do we owe each other?” They’re voices that have taken on a strongly partisan cast as though that what religion and public life really is about is the defense budget or the tax rate or something like that. I think it’s a very unfortunate trend, and I wish, when I say I think religious voices can help us, I wish more religious people in American life would speak up.

HEFFNER: Well, you say this book, in a sense, is a prayer. And the last word is “Amen.”


HEFFNER: Do you think your prayer will be answered?

CARTER: I am actually optimistic about civility in America. There’s a lot of very distressing data that I talk about in the book. One of the pieces of data I come back to again and again in the book is that 89 percent of public school teachers say that they regularly face “abusive” — that’s the word: “abusive” — language from students. Now, I’m in my mid-forties. When I was coming along in the public schools, if one student abusively spoke to one teacher, that was thought to be a crisis of such great proportions the entire community had to get involved in fixing it. There are a lot of pieces of data like that. A lot of reasons we can look around and say, “Look at the deterioration of civility, of simple respect for others, and certainly respect for authority in America.”

On the other hand, on the other hand, let me give you two good pieces of data. The first good piece of data is that most Americans care about this issue. Care about it deeply. The tendency of some intellectuals to say, “Well, this is an elite issue, you know, that ordinary folk don’t care about this,” whereas my experience is that elites don’t care about this very much. What most people do, the impact…the impact of our growing incivility, falls with its greatest weight on those of the fewest resources to avoid it.

Second piece of data that I think is absolutely fascinating is that people overwhelmingly say they hate the incivility, for example, of our political campaigns, they hate negative advertising, and so on. Now, it’s true that we haven’t yet persuaded ourselves to do anything about that, but the fact that people’s displeasure is so strong, I think, provides hope that in the long run we’ll be able to overcome this for the simple reason that people will demand that it be overcome.

HEFFNER: What indication is there? You say, as you’ve traveled around the country — and I certainly believe you — you find a desire for, a hunger for, this kind of civility. But you offer so many examples of the opposite.

CARTER: Of incivility.

HEFFNER: You’re caught. I mean, your reader is certainly caught. Where is Carter? Carter’s head is in the right place. His heart certainly is in the right place. But the data and the requests that you make of us, as you list the etiquette, as you list the parts of that etiquette, make it sound as though you’re talking about another world, a Never-Neverland, in fact.

CARTER: I don’t think it is a Never-Neverland. I think it’s achievable, but to achieve it we have to start in the small. And that’s one of the points I try to make. This is not something that is subject to public-policy initiatives and other… In New York, Mayor Giuliani has the big civility initiative. Now, his heart, perhaps, is in the right place. We should be more civil. But the idea that you can do that through force of law, through giving more jaywalking tickets, I think is a mistake in emphasis. It starts in the small. It starts that we are willing to do, in our own lives, to model civility for others.

Let me give two very simple examples. One is volunteerism. The American volunteer sector is the wonder of the world. There’s no country in the world that relies on its voluntary sector as heavily as we do, or that does it as successfully as we do. But the troubling thing, of course, is that volunteerism has been going down a little bit in recent years. We still lead the world, and yet it’s gone down. It’s embarrassing that the President of the United States has to call a summit to encourage people to volunteer more.

On the other hand, the good thing is that there are still all those volunteers out there, which means there are still people who see the value in working on behalf of others, in giving up the one thing we can never replace: our time. You see. Actually to be hands-on somewhere, helping their communities be better. And that large volunteer sector, I think, is one of the great hopes we have for the future. That’s one.

Let me mention one more. Let me mention one more. That although…although political participation, quite famously, is down — that is, people are not voting as much, they’re not joining political organizations as much — on the other hand, on the other hand, people are getting, if you will, more information than ever before. That is, people have so many different ways to get understanding of what’s going on and parse what’s going on in the world. What’s needed then is a way to help people gain the connection, understand the connection, between all the information they have and actually acting in a political way.

HEFFNER: But, Professor Carter, perhaps they have. Perhaps that’s just exactly the point: that they have made the connection, and are withdrawing as participants.

CARTER: Well, I think that is partly true. That is, you have a lot of withdrawal, and a lot of it has to do with cynicism, your very widespread sense nothing’s ever going to change, “I can’t affect anything. Nobody out there cares about me.” And what’s interesting is the fact is how many different constituent groups in American life believe that applies to them. Everybody seems to think nobody cares about people like themselves. On the other hand, on the other hand, but at the same time, for the first time in a long time people are seeing that the country is headed in a good direction, they’re feeling more confident than they were five or six years ago. And I think, as that happens, we will see the political participation figures go back up.

HEFFNER: Do you realize how many hands have entered into this conversation?

CARTER: [Laughter] Well-

HEFFNER: Because you are constantly balancing it, and with an optimism that I must say I have to admire.

CARTER: We walk always in any democracy on a knife’s edge. And the knife’s edge is between our deep commitment to the individual, which often leads, I think, to a kind of pessimism, to withdrawing into the self and my needs, and our commitment to the community, which is our obligations to others and to the society in which we live. And America’s genius in recent decades has been the ability to keep that nice balance, and for all of our citizens to keep that nice balance. I think that if I’m pessimistic at all it’s that I really don’t want a time when we’ve stumbled much too far into the side of the balance that represents the individual. It’s not that individual freedom is bad; it’s that we have stumbled down a road in which we exalt that almost more than anything else. And so we give short shrift to the values of community, which includes the values of, say, morality.

Two simple examples: When we think about schools, what we measure in the schools is whether the schools are turning out kids who get good test scores and things like that. And we don’t measure things that most parents actually care about, like: Are the schools turning out good kids? The things we, in a democracy, should care about. Horace Mann, the great exponent of public schools back in the early Nineteenth Century, said, “It’s a very easy thing to make a republic, but no easy thing to make republicans” (with a small “r”). I think that’s right. I think that we have to look at education as a process that not only helps the things we can measure, like grades and test scores, but also helps things we can’t measure, like creating good people. And I think as we begin to move in that direction things like character education and other things like that, I think you’ll see parents a little bit more satisfied with that side of what’s going on.

HEFFNER: What’s the role that is played by a phenomenon that you come back to again and again, and that’s the marketplace?

CARTER: You know, part of that balance that we walk, part of the individual side of that, is the values of the marketplace. The values of the marketplace, the marketplace supplies our wants. That’s what marketplaces, that’s what a free market does. I’m a great fan of free markets. I think we’ve never found a more effective way to produce wealth or to distribute goods. However, a market can only produce goods; it can’t tell us what goods to want. You need another source of morality. And when, as I worry the situation today, when you have a nation in which we shy away from moral conversation, it gets harder and harder to figure out how to raise young people or how to teach adults what they should want in the marketplace.

There was a traditional model that I really like of how you teach morality to the young. It’s the model of the three-legged stool. The three legs of the stool are the home, and the school, and the place of worship. The idea is that they all work together, reinforce a set of common values, and, if they don’t do that reinforcement, if any one leg of the stool breaks, the stool topples and morality isn’t taught. It’s very important, I think, for us to look at today the way that most adults are surprised that that stool has tumbled. Maybe it has only two legs, maybe there’s only one. And ask what we can do to shore it up.

HEFFNER: What do those three legs of the stool have to do with making a buck, which is the objective of the marketplace?

CARTER: [Laughter] Well, well, you know, when you think about making a buck, when you think about what actually goes on in the market, we can’t let the people who work in the market, or the people who consume, become people who are so instrumental in their outlook on life that all they think about is professional success or how much profit they make or how many goods they can buy. A couple years ago the Vatican issued this document, “Ethics in Advertising,” which tried to set out what I thought was a set of fairly mild ethical rules they thought advertisers ought to follow in selling products. Rules like not lying. Rules like not sexualizing their advertisements. Rules like not appealing in a variety of ways to the baser instincts. And, by and large, people in the advertising business treated this as though it was some kind of assault on the foundations of what they were doing. Well, I don’t think it was that at all. It was a reminder that, no matter what job one may hold, the accident, the coincidence of that job, does not excuse him or her from the ordinary requirements of morality.

HEFFNER: Why do you…why do you say “Not at all” to the notion of the advertising people that they thought it was an assault upon themselves and their work?

CARTER: Well, I said it wasn’t an assault on the foundation of their work. Clearly it was meant as an attack on much of the way that advertising is practiced in the nation, in the United States, and indeed in the world today. And it was in many ways a fair criticism, I think deserved to be taken seriously. I think one of the reasons it wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been was precisely that it was issued by the Vatican. If it had been, say, a university study, you know, with a list of 38 experts signing on, it would have been different.

HEFFNER: Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. You know perfectly well that enough university studies have done the same thing without the authority or the weight or the incubus of the papacy, and have been dismissed just as rapidly. I mean, your own book, when you talk about market-driven, when you talk about market pollution, when you talk about politics, universities, religion even, having been polluted by the marketplace concept, you’re talking about something much more fundamental than an objection to the Pope and his legions.

CARTER: Well, the reason that I mention the particular objection to religion is that I do think that one of the difficulties that religious people have in America in raising voices on behalf of the idea of whether it’s love of neighbor or anything else is that for many people it is an immediate, almost knee-jerk response, “Oh, well, those are religious people talking. They should butt out of whatever conversation this happens to be.” And that’s a very un-American idea. That’s not been America’s tradition. And although a lot of people in journalism and in politics talk that way today, as though there’s something inappropriate about religious activism, that’s not been America’s history.

HEFFNER: That’s very interesting, because you do make that point in the book. How did it come to pass?

CARTER: Well, I don’t know all of how, but I do know most of when it came to pass. Which is to say, until the 1970s, you mainly didn’t hear anybody in a serious way, anytime in American history, assert that religious people, religious groups, churches ought not to be involved in pressing their views on various political issues. The slaveholders didn’t accuse the Abolitionists of violating the separation of church and state for their advocates; they accused them of taking away their property rights, but not of violating the separation of church and state. The Southern segregationists didn’t accuse the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King’s organization, of violating separation of church and state. That’s almost entirely a creation of the kind of post-1960s Democratic Party really is what you’ve seen. In the ’70s and ’80s this rhetoric began to arise that it was somehow inappropriate for religious organizations to take sides on these contested questions. I think a lot of it had to do with abortion and some of the other issues related to that. And I always thought that people on the pro-choice side of the abortion issue make both a tactical mistake and historical error when they’re certain that people on the pro-life side who are against abortion shouldn’t be in the conversation if they’re religious. The correct answer is: “Well I disagree with you. Let’s fight it out in the politics.” That seems to be the way to resolve questions of that kind. But it’s just that kind of response, which has become deeply ingrained nowadays in a lot of our political rhetoric, that makes it very hard, I think, to press the view that I think is correct: that religious voices have to speak up on behalf of the idea of loving a neighbor as something we can place at the centerpiece of a kind of reconstruction of American society.

HEFFNER: What are you finding now as the response in modern America to the notes that are struck in your book? What are you finding in terms of your own sense of the role of religion, the role of morality, the role of the Golden Rule?

CARTER: You mentioned a few minutes ago that I’ve been traveling a lot around the country and I talk about civility and about religion and some of these related issues to all different kinds of audiences. What I find is that when I am in America’s small towns, or when I am in America’s inner cities, when I am close to people who don’t see themselves having a lot of access to the quarters of power, there’s a very positive response both to the idea that religion should play an important role in our public life, and to the idea that civility is really a pressing need and we have to find ways to reconstruct it.

When I am in university communities, when I speak to corporate executives, which I do a lot, I find a very different response. I find the response that religion is a kind of something that should be walled off and kept private, and that civility is really not that important; what’s important is winning my issue, that’s what becomes important instead. And so that means that as children grow up and their families try to raise them to be civil, to be good people, what the children are seeing, say, on television, is a very different image. It’s an image, it’s the elite image of how you hold discussions: people yelling and screaming at each other. It’s people being uncivil. It’s people from “Winning is the most important thing.” Not on a show like this one, fortunately, but all too often that’s the image that’s brought home, whether they’re watching political debates, or they’re watching advertising. The relentless message again and again and again is what matters is not other people; what matters is you and your wants and desires.

I often tell my audiences that Democrats and Republicans in America today run for office on exactly the same platform. They do. The platform is: “Elect me and you will get exactly what you want, and it will cost you nothing.” That’s the platform. Now, they appeal to different people depending on what they want. But that’s basically how everybody runs for office, and it’s deeply uncivil. No one runs for office today asking for sacrifice. No one runs for office today talking about obligation. No one runs for office today saying that you’re part of a community and you owe something to that community, and sometimes what you owe, what you’re called upon to give will be greater than what you have to give in return.

HEFFNER: You say the powerless are more responsive, more positive in responding to your message.


HEFFNER: You think that means that as they become more powerful there will be even less of a place for those religious ideas?

CARTER: I hope that’s not true. I hope that’s not true. I think that the more that we strive toward genuine democracy, by which I mean a democracy in which everybody in America is invited into the debate, the more we will find a decline in our incivilities. See I think that incivility is a tool for maintenance of the status quo. A lot of people argue that civility maintains the status quo. Well, I think the opposite is true: I think incivility is a very powerful tool for keeping things the way that they are.

HEFFNER: Will I be uncivil if I say I’ve just gotten the signal to say goodbye? So that we must say goodbye, but we’ll do another program. Thank you so much for joining me today, Professor Carter.

CARTER: It’s been my pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time as well. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.