Editor’s notebook: Less ‘civility,’ more straight talk

The term ‘civility’ has become weaponized to deter the asking and answering of tough questions

November 9, 2023 6:02 am
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, confronted by members of the public after a meeting of the committee on studying rejecting federal education funds. Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, confronted by members of the public after a meeting of the committee on studying rejecting federal education funds. Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In the last few years, the word ‘civility’ has become imbued with an inordinate amount of importance, particularly in politics. 

I’ve addressed this topic before, most recently after Gov. Bill Lee’s second inaugural address in January, when he referred to his critics as guilty of  “toxic incivility and divisiveness.” 

And recently, former governors Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, and Bill Haslam, a Republican, launched a podcast called “You Might be Right,” subtitled “a podcast featuring civil conversations about tough topics.”

With respect to Bredesen and Haslam, both of whom governed as moderates, I believe they speak more to the benefits of bipartisanship, a strategy that has apparently fallen out of favor with both major American political parties. 

There’s a big case to be made for bipartisanship, given the country seems divided almost 50-50 by party; to accomplish meaningful policy, working across the aisle is still a necessity — at least in Washington, D.C. Witness the issues Congressional Republicans have had in 2023 keeping their own members contained: on more than one occasion, members of the GOP congressional caucus have asked their Democratic colleagues for aid in electing a House Speaker. 

But “civility” has become weaponized as a tool to deter the asking of tough questions of lawmakers. Grill a Tennessee legislator why he might want to turn down nearly $2 billion in federal funding — that comes from taxes Tennesseans have already paid —  why, you might be incivil! 

Tennessee’s lawmakers are a precious bunch, thin of skin, reluctant to address hard topics and hasty to cry “incivility!” when doing so provides then covering from responding to hard questions from constituents and reporters.

Correctly point out a politician has shaded the truth about his or her resume or affiliations with neo-Nazi groups, for instance, and you too could be accused of incivility. 

History shows us American politics wasn’t built on civility, and crocodile tears now over a lack of such is historically inaccurate: our politics have always been a bare-knuckled brawl. 

In a 1996 article in Political Science Quarterly, political science professor William Mayer summed up the state of American politics thusly: “Claims about how wonderful things were back in some past golden age usually do severe violence to the facts of history.”

Tennessean Andrew Jackson’s 1828 presidential race was notoriously nasty, with John Quincy Adams calling Jackson’s wife, Rachel, a “convicted adulteress,” as she married Jackson before her first divorce was finalized. Almost 200 years later, we still consider attacks on a candidate’s spouse largely out of bounds. 

In 1884, a woman named Maria Halpin went public with her claims that Democratic presidential nominee Grover Cleveland raped and impregnated her. Cleveland, who was called a “common libertine,” claimed paternity but apparently resented jibes from supporters of Republican nominee James Blaine: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha.” 

Then, there was Lyndon Baines Johnson, who before he was president, won a hotly-contested U.S. Senate race in Texas that was marked by Johnson’s accusations his opponent engaged in bestiality with barnyard animals. When an aide reportedly said, “My God, Lyndon! You know that’s not true!” Johnson allegedly responded, “I know it’s not true, but now he’s got to deny it.”

Incivil? Possibly. But as the saying goes, politics ain’t beanbag. 

Tennessee’s lawmakers are a precious bunch, thin of skin and reluctant to address hard topics. In April, we witnessed Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton tell a right-wing radio host that protests about gun safety by a largely-teen crowd were worse than the Jan. 6,2021 insurrection to overturn a free and fair election.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, gestures to a colleague during a legislative hearing on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, gestures to a colleague during a legislative hearing on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A reporter for the Lookout was accused by a state representative of being an “activist” for citing, verbatim, an email the lawmaker sent to a group of his colleagues. 

And on Wednesday, when Tennessee Holler founder Justin Kanew attempted to ask GOP Sen. Jon Lundberg, chair of the committee to decide on rejecting $1.8 billion in federal funding for public schools, about the fact that no other state has turned down such funds, Lundberg’s response was to ask Kanew about a DUI Kanew received more than 20 years ago. 

If there’s incivility, it’s coming not from reporters or voting Tennesseans but from Tennessee’s elected officials, who have continued to deny Medicaid expansion funding, leaving more than 300,000 Tennesseans without health care. It’s incivil to turn down education funds — that return to the state from taxes Tennesseans have already paid — that pay for free school lunches for kids who can’t afford to eat and for special education programs. 

Incivility is turning a blind eye to the concerns parents have about their kids getting shot at school, in a state with near unfettered access to firearms. 

If it be uncivil to scream about these wrongs and to hold elected officials accountable, then more of it, please. I’ll take righteous incivility over sweet-talking and useless platitudes that redress no wrongs.


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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.