What happens when the social covenant is torn?
We’re not here to talk about civility.
Granted, that was the inescapable buzzword last week as the left wing rose in pointedly uncivil protest of the evil being perpetrated by the Republican Party and the moral monstrosity who is our president. GOP officials found themselves turned away from one restaurant, heckled in two others and confronted at the movies. The affable actor Seth Rogen told Stephen Colbert how he spurned House Speaker Paul Ryan’s request for a photograph and dressed him down in the process.
And California Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat, poured gasoline on the fire. Crowds should gather, she said, wherever these people eat or pump gas, to let them know, “They’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Suddenly, the lack of “civility” in public discourse was all anyone could talk about. Republicans leapt in gleefully, prominent among them former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who decried the “increasing personal nastiness” toward members of this administration.
We’ll pause here while you get a glass of water for that coughing fit.
Because, of course, the party of a man who bullied and name-called his way to the White House has no standing from here till the end of time to complain about anyone being impolite. And Gingrich? Being lectured on civility by that guy is like being lectured on virginity by Stormy Daniels.
But the buzzword is not simply wrong. It also misses the point.
Once upon a time, if the press secretary sat down at your restaurant for a meal, you fed her. Now, maybe you don’t. Once upon a time, if someone asked you for a photo, you obliged. Now, maybe not.
Is that just a sign of eroding public decorum? Or is it not, rather, a sign of a great national unraveling, of a country pulling itself apart, of the social covenant — the unspoken agreements between us that allow a society to function — dissolving before our eyes?
Politics defines us now, ideology is identity now. Things you once took for granted, you no longer can. Things you didn’t think political suddenly are. And routine no longer is.
Championship sports teams used to visit the White House. Now they don’t. The president used to participate in the Kennedy Center Honors. Now he doesn’t. Nor is the unraveling limited to this presidency.
Congressmen used to refrain from heckling presidents. But one did. A birth certificate used to be considered authoritative. Now it isn’t. The opposition party used to govern in good faith. Now it doesn’t.
But the roots of this moment go deeper than the Obama presidency, too. They date to at least the mid-1990s, when the GOP weaponized congressional investigations and — through their talk radio and cable news affiliates — lies.
Facts used to matter. Now they don’t.
What we have been learning since the ’90s is that the social covenant we once took for granted is critical. It is part of what made a great country good — indeed, part of what made it possible.
The GOP ripped that covenant in the name of political expedience. For proof, look no further than our chaos president. And if last week is any indication, the left is now prepared to shred what remains. It is possible to both support these protests, this necessary public shaming, yet also lament the fact that apparently, we are now the kind of nation where going out to dinner or pumping gas is a political act.
This is who we are now, and one wonders how much more we can take.
When the social covenant is torn, can the country be far behind?
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for
The Miami Herald