George Will is appalled by the aggressive political tactics of both parties, citing the Texas redistricting debacle, Nevada judges giving themselves a raise, the California recall, and the filibustering of perfectly qualified Supreme Court nominees as prime examples.

But many of the practices that reduce the friction of life are “only” customs. And when the cake of custom crumbles — it is much easier to break than to bake that cake — it is replaced either by yet more laws codifying behavior that should be regulated by good manners or by a permanent increase in society’s level of ongoing aggression.


Political incivility feeds on itself. The attempt to recall California Gov. Gray Davis will encourage the idea that elections settle nothing — campaigning is permanent and ubiquitous.

A dialectic of aggression and retaliation began with the defeat in 1987 of the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Democrats established the principle that the custom of broad deference to presidential choices would be superseded by political tests of strength over nominees’ philosophies. Hence today’s confirmation acrimony. Last week Democrats said yet another nomination would be filibustered.

Life has been called a series of habits disturbed by a few thoughts. Civil society is kept civil by certain habits of restraint. Inflammatory political ideas can overturn habits, sometimes for the better, usually not. But no discernible ideas, at least none that are more than appetites tarted up as ideas, account for the vandalism by political overreachers of both parties.

Each vandal seems to think that his or her passions are their own excuse for existing. As Santayana said, such thinking is the defining trait of barbarians.


While I disagree that incivility started in 1987–there was after all dueling and physical assault in the halls of Congress during the early days of the Republic–this is a dangerous game both sides are playing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Lemon says:

    To paraphrase someone who commented on someone else who was making a point about the invidious decay of culture surrounding personal responsibility (in light of malpractice suits and risk taking), “yeah, well… whatcha gonna do about it?”

    (Geez, that was a long and convoluted sentence.)

  2. As far as California is concerned, waiting until Davis’ term is up doesn’t seem acceptable, since he’s steering the ship right into the rocks.

    The last several CA governors have been subjected to recall attempts; it was only a matter of time before someone got enough signatures to actually recall one.

    Believe me–our state is in a lot of trouble. And a good deal of that can be placed at Davis’ door.

  3. James Joyner says:


    I don’t disagree that Davis has been an atrocious governor. But it seems to me that the time to have done something about that was last November, when he was up for re-election.

  4. James Joyner says:


    Not a blessed thing, unfortunately.