As a teenager, George Washington kept a notebook where he wrote 110 rules of civility and decent behavior, based on Jesuit teachings. Civility refers to how we communicate ideas in the public square. In politics, it means having good manners even in disagreement -- and is commonly understood as a standard of decency for how our leaders should behave. This is as true today as it was in the beginning of U.S. history. For a democratic society to endure and prosper, its civics must be built on the cornerstones of trust and dignity -- communicated through civility. The enemies of civility are humiliation and fear, which erode and then undermine this critical civic foundation.
In a democracy, the most basic and participatory layer of civics is how citizens communicate about ideas. For this reason, civility must be defended. Decency is critical for the interpersonal activities that happen underneath today's campaign headlines -- in group relationships and informal gatherings. In your neighborhood, for example. Our political leaders have a unique responsibility. They must demonstrate civil behavior and consistently repudiate fear-mongering and insults. Bullies exist, but they should be called out and their behavior marginalized. This is true from kindergarten to the presidential race. As House Speaker Paul Ryan explained earlier this week, when people distrust politics, they distrust institutions, they lose faith in government and they lose faith in the future. There's a reason the word "civility" is related to the word civilization. Without it, societies fall apart.
Malevolent leaders throughout history have known how to destroy dignity and trust and stockpile fear and humiliation. The Nazis certainly did. In Jerusalem in 1960, the Gestapo bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann was on trial for his key logistical role implementing the Final Solution (annihilation of the Jews). On the stand, in a discourse with Israeli Judge Moshe Landau about what could have stopped Germany's descent into industrial murder, Eichmann spoke bureaucratically and affirmatively. "Organized layers of civil courage could have stopped the Nazis," he said. Civility is the first layer of this social defense. Hannah Arendt covered Eichmann's Trial for the New Yorker magazine. She coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the moral disengagement that the Nazi bureaucracy facilitated. The banality of evil is bigger than one individual. It describes a situation where social norms and institutions allow atrocities as a matter of course -- where an embedded weak and non-reflective character like Eichmann succeeds just by following the rules.
The Banality of Virtue?
How might we organize the 21st century so that democracy thrives? Is there a civic system to tip the balance in favor of the good? After all, most of us do the right thing all the time without even noticing it. The "banality of virtue" describes this theory of human behavior in crisis. It features regular people who see their own heroic acts as normal -- for example, individuals who rescued and sheltered Jews during World War II. In interviews, they described their risky actions as something anyone would do, not heroic. They demonstrated trust and dignity in action. They showed how normal it is to be civil, even in the middle of a war.
Protecting Democratic Institutions in the Information Age
One place to support a positive civic direction in the coming years is the U.S. Congress. Technology will play a central role in restoring the promise of Congress and rebuilding the reputation of democracy. After all, America's greatest strength is its ability to scale inclusion. Technology can help create new rules of engagement for sharing ideas publicly. Social media is already exploring online norms for inclusion. If presidential candidates had to abide by Reddit's code of conduct, we'd all be in a better place. Mozilla's community guidelines are excellent. Twitter Australia's #PositionofStrength program is another example of the Internet's civic potential.
How can democracy best endure through rough times? Whether online or off, civil communication is vital for democratic resilience. This is a consistent theme in my Resilient Democracy research with Congress. Here is more:
A resilient system protects itself. We're not doing that very well right now
A resilient democracy has indomitable institutions -- Congress must endure
For Congress, it means being flexible and able to adapt with changing societal and cultural norms
A resilient system must offer solutions better than the extremists
A system that is responsive, not reactive
A resilient Congress would have the best knowledge available at the right time
Resilience means all Americans are actually connected
Civility: Critical Infrastructure for the Information Age
Critical infrastructure are vital systems that connect us, protect us and keep us strong: Water, health, electricity, roads, communications systems. The Department of Homeland Security lists 16 of them.
From Hurricane Katrina response to Flint Michigan's water supply, we've seen significant critical infrastructure failures. On the whole, civil engineers give our country a D+.
We need to view civics as the critical infrastructure of democracy. Today's public incivility and anger are symptoms of a fragile system. It appears as if a main sewage pipeline has ruptured right underneath the town square. We must shore up our national connections. Being civil is a simple first step. Anybody who can drive knows why it is an important norm. Think of a four-way stop -- that's civility based on self-interest. If you run the stop sign too many times, you're going to get T-boned.
Despite our many imperfections, advocating for dignity is how the U.S. became a leading democracy. We embody that value when we display how an open society handles differences i.e. with civility. We preach these virtues across the globe. We should all be alarmed at research indicating American support for authoritarianism. Top down, coercive systems can only endure through fear and humiliation. Remember, the Arab revolutions began with a humiliating slap.
If we want to build a resilient democracy -- one that is indomitable -- we'll need an update of George Washington's civility rules. This time for 21st-century government. Likewise, candidate behavior on the 2016 campaign trail has huge implications for America and for the world. To believe otherwise is playing with fire.