For those of us who have experienced the Trump presidency as one long, waking nightmare, the 2020 election results – when they finally arrived – came as a combination of massive relief and dispiriting gut punch. Relief, because Joe Biden won, and won by enough of a margin that Trump’s entirely predictable efforts to overturn the election never had a serious chance of succeeding. Gut punch, because after four years of flagrant unfitness, incompetence, and corruption, Trump improved significantly on his vote totals in 2016. More than 74 million people lived through the lies, madness, and incessant assaults on foundational American values and institutions – not to mention the botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic that had cratered the economy and by that time left a quarter-million dead – and concluded they’d like to double down. Moreover, in congressional and state-level contests, the Republican Party that consistently and shamelessly enabled Trump’s misrule nonetheless greatly outperformed expectations: holding on to state houses and state legislative majorities, and narrowing the Democratic margin in the U.S. House. 

A ray of hope appeared last week when the runoff elections in Georgia gave Democrats control of the Senate – if only by the narrowest of margins, and only after the president’s campaign to steal the election led to efforts by his supporters to boycott the vote. But then the very next day, a violent mob summoned to Washington by Trump stormed and ransacked the Capitol building while the Electoral College results were being certified, resulting in five deaths – and a narrow plurality of Republican voters polled that day approved (a later poll showed much lower, but still alarming, levels of support). Here again, relief and then gut punch.

So we must face difficult facts. While our darkest fears were avoided, the diagnostic test run on November 3 revealed that America’s political culture remains afflicted by serious and potentially fatal maladies. There is simply no way that a man like Donald Trump could ever have been elected or even nominated in a healthy, well-functioning polity, and the fact that he and his party performed so strongly this time around only underscores the severity of the problem. The aftermath of the election, meanwhile, has seen the Republican Party plummet to new lows. The vast bulk of Republican voters have swallowed Trump’s lies about election fraud, while an alarming number of House and Senate Republicans joined Trump in trying to overturn the election by objecting to the Electoral College results.

Contrary to what we thought might be possible before the election, it is now clear that there is no shortcut to recovery – no vaccine or miracle cure to hope for. Republicans are not going to be shocked back to their senses by rejection at the polls. Democrats are not going to batter them into tractability with overwhelming legislative majorities. If we are once again to have both major political parties firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, those of us already so committed are going to have to do the slow and difficult work of persuading our fellow citizens who have lost that commitment to return to the fold.

Which brings me to the subject of this essay: the need for a renewed dedication to civic virtue. Going back to ancient times, the republican political tradition has stressed that some level of virtue among both leaders and ordinary citizens is necessary for self-government to be sustainable. And in the present day, it is painfully evident that our republic is suffering from a lack of civic virtue at all levels. 

Of course the absence of virtue is most pronounced, and most dangerous, on the right. Addled by insane conspiracy theories and consumed with win-at-all-costs extremism, the Republican Party is now a serious threat to the future of liberal constitutional democracy in America. Although this perilous state of affairs began with delusions and cynical opportunism among elites in the party and the conservative movement, it is now being driven by the ordinary voters of the Republican base, who have made the terrible error of believing what their leaders have told them and taking it to heart.

But the flagrant sins of the right don’t let the rest of us off the hook. Those of us in the center and on the left bear some responsibility for the rise of the anti-democratic right. Our own lapses in civic virtue have, to at least some extent, contributed to the right’s intellectual and moral collapse. And furthermore, all of us who see clearly the threat that the contemporary right poses have an obligation to do what is in our power to defuse that threat. It’s not enough to call out and bemoan the wrongdoing of others; we must try to do better ourselves, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because our self-improvement can rub off on our opponents. 

What, then, does it mean to better ourselves? What are the civic virtues now in short supply that could, if practiced more widely, begin to heal our fractured republic – our fractured society – and make our old motto, e pluribus unum, a living reality again? Let me acknowledge before going any further that much has been written over the years by a wide variety of penetrating thinkers on which exact virtues are most important for sustaining liberal democracy. In his own excellent contribution to this literature, which includes a useful survey of the work of a number of notable contemporary thinkers, political theorist Andrew Sabl observes, “Augustine wrote of time that he knew what it was as long as nobody asked. Talk of the virtues needed by liberal democratic citizens has a similar flavor.” There is much wider agreement on the need for wide observance of certain virtues than there is on what the identity of those virtues might be.

Sabl contends — rightly, I believe — that the liberal democratic virtues are episodic; that is, the instrumental connection between certain virtues and the health of the polity varies with time and circumstance. So let me make clear that the thoughts I offer are focused squarely on our current predicament; the moral requirements for facing other situations and challenges may well be different. With that caveat provided, in this essay I will focus on one basic rule for good democratic citizenship and leadership – a rule flagrantly violated on the Trumpist right but also ignored all too often by liberal democracy’s sincere supporters. Its widespread flouting is such a fundamental aspect of our present-day political dysfunction that, for our time at least, we should consider the obligation to follow this rule the Prime Directive of democratic civic virtue.

And what is this Prime Directive? Let’s put in bold type: Treat all your fellow citizens, regardless of their political views, as your civic and political equals. 

In this huge, sprawling nation, teeming with ethnic, religious, cultural, and ideological variety, there is one thing that binds all Americans together. And that is, we are all Americans, all citizens of the same republic, all bound by the same laws that all of us have at least some power to shape and to change. We share full and equal membership in one body politic, and we therefore owe all our fellow members the mutual respect that this common equal status entails. To be good citizens, we should treat all Americans, even those with whom we have political differences, as our civic and political equals. This obligation presses even more heavily on our elected leaders, who as public servants have a special responsibility to uphold democratic values. 

Recognizing our political opponents as our equals imposes important limits on the extent of political competition and conflict. However fervently we hold to our own political ideals, however strongly we prefer particular policies and programs, however much we admire and support some candidates and disdain and oppose others, we must recognize we live in a highly pluralistic country and that others – who are every bit as American as we are, and whose votes count every bit as much as our own – see things differently. And since America is a democracy, that means things won’t always go our way. When our side loses an election or a vote, however crushing the disappointment, it is incumbent on us to accept that these things happen and carry on. The loser now will be later to win. In the meantime, we are the loyal opposition.

Politics as warfare

In a waggish inversion of Clausewitz’s famous dictum, it is sometimes said that politics is the continuation of war by other means. But to sustain a healthy democracy, this conception of politics must be rejected completely. Sports, instead, supplies the proper metaphor. Opposing teams compete hard, but under rules that keep the competition within strict bounds. And when the contest is over, we are supposed to shake hands and – if we lost – congratulate the winner and turn our hopes and efforts toward next time. Or, even better than seeing our opponents as the rival team, we can imagine that we are all on the same team but competing for starting positions. The winners get to take the field and govern while the losers have to ride the bench, but in the ongoing alternation of power those benchwarmers can expect to get their shot. It may be agonizing to be on the sidelines, but we are still expected to support our team and do what we can to work for its success. 

The political crisis we are now living through is rooted in the fact that the Republican Party, and the conservative movement more generally, have over the course of recent decades completely abandoned the ethos of good sportsmanship and instead embraced with increasingly fanatical zeal the idea of politics as warfare. The key inflection point, I believe, came with the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of a true external enemy whose nuclear arsenal imposed a genuine existential threat, the end of “us versus them” geopolitical rivalry – and therefore of any pressing need for national unity in the face of shared danger – allowed the constraints on an “us versus them” politics at home to weaken and then dissolve. This dynamic affected both sides of the political spectrum, but it shouldn’t be too surprising that the effect was so much more pronounced on the right. Conservatives had long sought to tar liberals as weak-kneed apologists for and enablers of communist expansion; after the communist implosion, it was easy to elevate the junior partner of the worldwide left menace to the position of Public Enemy Number One. 

Newt Gingrich was a key early figure in the GOP’s surrender to the dark side. He saw and ruthlessly exploited the power of demonization for partisan gain: Recall his 1990 memo urging Republican office seekers to characterize Democrats as “sick,” “pathetic,” “anti-family,” “anti-flag,” “radical,” and “traitors”; or his attempt in 1994 to blame Susan Smith’s deranged drowning of her two children on the moral sickness of liberalism. In wider conservative circles, the commercial imperatives of mass media – “if it bleeds, it leads” – encouraged media entrepreneurs on talk radio, cable TV news, and the internet to build markets and fortunes on endlessly scaring their audience with the latest outrages of “feminazis,” “libtards,” and other caricatures.

During the Obama years things went from bad to worse. Despite being thoroughly moderate in both temperament and policy agenda, Barack Obama personified the “Other” that conservatives railed against: black, the son of a foreigner, exotic-sounding name, Harvard-educated. Conservative media fed and amplified the crackpot “birther” conspiracy theory, and condemned his health care plan – which he borrowed from Mitt Romney – as the coming of socialism. Republicans, in turn, committed to complete obstructionism. In 2010 Mitch McConnell declared that his party’s highest priority was not to address any of the nation’s pressing problems as the country was struggling to pull out of the deepest slump since the Great Depression, but rather to ensure that the new president served only one term. 

With Trump, the bottom fell out completely. The fact that he was even nominated showed that, after decades of goading and pandering by politicians and conservative media, a critical mass of Republican voters was now ripe and eager for a demagogue who would trash democratic norms and institutions in pursuit of power. Negative partisanship took over from there, leading the overwhelming majority of Republican voters, even those who had reservations about Trump, to stick with him because the alternative was considered unacceptable – thus allowing a manifestly unfit candidate to run competitively in the general election. When your opponents are mainstream politicians operating within the normal parameters of national debate, yet you nonetheless see them as the enemy, as a mortal threat to all you hold dear, then of course you aren’t swayed to join the other side simply because your own field general is a bit erratic. This kind of apocalyptic thinking was captured most strikingly in Michael Anton’s notorious essay “The Flight 93 Election.”

And after Trump actually ended up winning … well, le déluge. Incessant lying, blatant corruption, large-scale cruelty towards children, suborning Ukrainian interference in the next election, mass death and economic collapse as the pandemic was met with denial – and none of it put a dent in the president’s approval rating. What held the line? Fear of Democrats as the enemy, and the perceived need to back the champion who, whatever his flaws, stood up against that enemy without compromise. The substance of the fear varied – from “socialism” to refugee caravan “invasions” to, at the farther reaches, the QAnon lunacy of a global conspiracy of Satan-worshipping pedophiles – but the effect was always the same: The danger posed by the enemy justified or excused anything and everything. “At least he fights.”

Unsurprisingly, politics as warfare could not remain contained as mere metaphor. It sometimes broke out in actual or threatened violence – in Charlottesville, in the attempt by armed protesters to storm the floor of the Michigan Capitol building, in Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder of Black Lives Matter demonstrators. And then, in the aftermath of the recent election, it culminated in a full-fledged assault on democracy and the rule of law – led by Trump, but enthusiastically joined by all too many state and federal Republican officials. And thus we have come to the point where one of the nation’s two great political parties – the one conceived in the struggle against slavery and the slave power’s subversion of republican government – now poses a direct threat to the continued existence of American constitutional democracy.  

The politics of contempt

So much for the many and grievous sins of the right. How about the other side? Again, let me make clear: I am not asserting anything remotely like moral equivalence. In the center and on the left, whatever problems there are, the commitment to liberal democratic norms and institutions remains solid. When Hillary Clinton lost, she conceded the next day. After three years of polarizing, maddening provocations by Donald Trump, Democrats ended up nominating as their standard bearer the most moderate candidate in the field. 

With those important qualifications out of the way, the fact remains that those on the left, if not living in glass houses, certainly have some big picture windows. Politics as warfare has made its corrupting presence felt there as well.

Here the main problem is treating fellow citizens with contempt: failing to recognize them as civic equals, but instead condescendingly viewing them as backward and benighted or, more harshly, castigating them as wicked and irredeemable. For the milder, condescending variant, recall Barack Obama’s line about small-town conservatives reacting to declining economic prospects: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in 2016, let loose with the more full-throated kind of condemnation: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.” 

Both those incidents received enormous attention because of who was speaking, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Both were slip-ups, offered in unguarded moments before friendly crowds at fundraisers. Which is telling: Obama and Clinton were stroking their audiences, telling them what they knew they wanted to hear. Because this kind of talk is endemic among progressives. And unlike Obama and Clinton – two moderate, pragmatic politicians who generally knew better than to insult broad swathes of the electorate – most who indulge in this kind of stereotyping are anything but furtive about it.

Sometimes this takes the form of humblebragging – explaining that progressives are at a political disadvantage because they’re just too good for this world. “I think it’s very hard because [Democrats] don’t have the message machine the Republicans do,” the linguist and Democratic consultant George Lakoffexplained. “The Democrats still believe in Enlightenment reason.” Sometimes the contempt is coated with a veneer of science, as in the raft of psychological studies that characterize personality traits associated with social conservatism in loaded and disparaging terms like authoritarian, dogmatic, close-minded, and fearful. Frequently, though, the rhetoric veers off into straight-up trash-talking abuse – like Democratic activist Markos Moulitsas’ 2010 book about the right, American Taliban. Or Hamilton Nolan’s 2015 rant on Gawker, “Dumb hicks are America’s greatest threat.” If you’re in need of more examples, just log onto Twitter and soon you’ll be drowning in them.

Where does all this lead? It’s gotten to the point that talk of secession – once confined to the extreme right fringe – has actually begun cropping up in respectable progressive circles. Much more common is the adoption of the right wing’s “makers vs. takers” canard, now flipped around to stigmatize red states for being net recipients from the federal treasury (fatuously ignoring that this fact reflects not freeloading, but limited fiscal capacity because these states are poorer). Lording it over large swathes of the country because people there are poorer than you – what a betrayal of not just progressive values, but simple human decency. This is where the politics of contempt leads: to a complete breakdown in the felt bonds of shared citizenship, an abandonment of the civic ideal of “one nation, indivisible.”  

Again, let me stress that the lapses from civic virtue on the left are in no way comparable to the horror show that now characterizes the right. The difference between the two sides boils down to this: The main problem with the sins of the right is that they threaten to destroy constitutional democracy in America, while the main problem with the sins of the left is that they alienate otherwise winnable voters and thereby unwittingly strengthen the anti-democratic right. Entirely different levels of culpability, yet still the fact remains that bad actors on both sides feed off each other and reinforce each other. 

Even with this qualification, I can still imagine strong resistance to my criticism of progressive rhetoric: “But what we’re saying about the other side is true! Racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia really are prevalent on the right. Do you want us to whitewash and normalize dangerous ideas?” First of all, enough with the phobia talk: Use of that construction is inherently demeaning, equating value differences – or differences in the relative weights accorded to shared values – with mental health problems. (Yes, I’ve used such terms many times myself; it’s a bad habit that I’m trying to break.)

Beyond that, attributing bad traits to all members of a group because they are statistically more common in that group is the very definition of prejudice. Such stereotyping is dehumanizing: It effaces the individual and reduces them to fungible members of a despised outgroup. The fact is, Blacks are statistically more likely to commit violent crimes than whites. I trust nobody considers it acceptable to portray all Blacks as criminals on that basis. And please, I’m not saying that invidious political stereotyping is as bad or harmful as racial stereotyping. But it is bad, and it is harmful. 

If it’s hard for you to see the politics of contempt as rank political bigotry, rather than just spirited adherence to principle, consider how selectively outrage about socially conservative views is deployed. For example, it’s well documented that African Americans as a group are less accepting of homosexuality than whites, but any attempt to point out that fact and connect it to political consequences – like the success of California’s anti-gay Proposition 8 – will elicit strong and indignant pushback. After all, Blacks are a reliable Democratic voting bloc who regularly help elect politicians with strongly progressive social views, so it’s considered uncharitable, even insulting, to point out that many of them are not on board with this or that progressive position.

And that pushback is 100 percent correct! First, as a matter of basic political strategy: All electoral majorities are coalitions of highly diverse voters who don’t agree on all that much. So to actually win elections and thus have a chance to change policies in a direction you favor, you have to run campaigns that highlight a narrow set of issues and then do your best to submerge disagreement about everything else. Ideological purity tests are, quite literally, for losers.

On this point, back in 2017 political consultant David Shor assembled some arresting polling data on a number of stock progressive issue positions (subsidized loans for low-income students, gun control, universal health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, government funding for the arts, more action to protect the environment, legal abortion, employers should have to provide coverage for birth control and other health care services regardless of their religious beliefs, and same-sex marriage). All these positions commanded strong majorities among voters generally (ranging from 57 to 75 percent support) and even stronger majorities among Obama voters (ranging from 68 to 86 percent support). But how many people surveyed actually held all these views? Only 28 percent of Obama voters, and a mere 18 percent of all voters. 

Tolerance of disagreement among fellow partisans is thus Electoral Politics 101. But beyond that, toleration of difference and disagreement generally – including among people who currently stand on the other side of the political aisle – is a matter of bedrock liberal principle. Under conditions of modernity, pluralism is inevitable, inescapable, and inexpungable. Liberalism arose in Europe in significant part as a response to the failure of the Wars of Religion to put religious pluralism back in the bottle; after the continent nearly bled itself dry in the failed attempt, the liberal modus vivendi of freedom of conscience and toleration emerged as the pathway out of the killing fields. This is liberalism’s grand bargain: By learning to live with people who are different from us and whose beliefs we consider erroneous and even wicked, we can take advantage of the immense potential of far-flung specialization and exchange to make each other better off.

The denial of pluralism

With the embrace of partisan bigotry, and the refusal to see each other as equals worthy of respect, our contemporary culture wars are replaying the futile stalemates of the Wars of Religion – albeit this time with deepening rancor and political dysfunction substituting (thus far at least) for mass bloodshed. Our ideologically sorted parties provide the secular equivalent of fighting faiths, and the delusional quest for some final and lasting ideological triumph parallels the old zeal to stamp out heresy.

Today, both sides are in denial about our country’s ineradicable political pluralism. On the right, the fantasy is that America is inherently a “center-right nation” – a view buttressed by seeing old-stock white Protestants who live in small towns as more deeply and genuinely American than everybody else. The left’s contending fantasy has been that of the “emerging Democratic majority,” in which demographic change and the arc of history will soon lead to a new progressive consensus. According to both narratives, successful mobilization of “our side” will result in lasting political dominance, and the views and values of the other side – now reduced to an impotent rump – can simply be ignored.

Well, no such luck. The Reagan “revolution” didn’t last. Obama’s “New New Deal” never materialized. Trump ended up a one-termer and the only president in history to lose the popular vote twice. Most recently, the blue wave that promised to sweep away the GOP ran into a red wave nearly as large. 

And when we move from electioneering to governing, we find that even in the current era of partisan sorting and polarization, almost the only way to get what you want is to work with partners from the other party. Political scientists James Curry and Frances Lee conducted a systematic review of major legislation over the past 30 years, identifying the legislative priorities of the parties in power and measuring how well they achieved them. Their remarkable conclusion: In only 4 percent of the cases they examined did ruling parties pass high-priority legislation that included most of what they wanted without the majority of the opposition party voting with them or at least one party leader from the other side providing support. And looking at trends, Curry and Lee found no evidence that the greater ideological cohesiveness of legislative majorities has translated into greater effectiveness in rolling the opposition.

So we’re stuck with each other, and the only way to accomplish much of anything is to look past our differences for common ground. The civic virtue I’ve been talking about here – that of seeing all our fellow citizens as civic and political equals and treating them with respect – provides the moral foundation on which such a constructive politics of the common good can proceed and flourish. In our cynical age, it may be easy to dismiss talk of civic virtue as so much high-minded windbaggery – though it is anything but. On the contrary, the civic virtue that takes shared citizenship seriously is eminently practical, because it is rooted in the fundamental realities of modern life.

The case against partisan bigotry

But how on earth do we get there from here? These days the worst are not just full of furious intensity; they are convinced that they are the virtuous ones. Yet if optimism seems a tall order, there are at least grounds for hope. After all, American society has made great strides over the course of my lifetime in reducing prejudice and intolerance: against African Americans, against women with aspirations beyond wife and mother, against non-Christians, against gays and lesbians. What is needed now is another mass movement for civic and political equality, another consciousness-raising campaign – this time, against partisan bigotry.

The rise and intensification of partisan bigotry have been studied extensively in recent years – except we don’t call it that. Instead we use the emotionally neutral language of social science: negative partisanshipaffective polarization. We step right up to the edge of realizing what we’re dealing with, but never quite seem to make the connection. To take one familiar example, most of us have read about the inversion since the 1950s in attitudes about a family member’s marrying someone of another race or from another party. Back in 1958, approval of marriages between Blacks and whites stood at only 4 percent; now it’s close to 90 percent. Meanwhile, though, only 33 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans in 1958 expressed a preference that their daughter marry someone from the same party; those numbers have now jumped to 60 and 63 percent, respectively.

The reaction to this juxtaposition of rising and falling tolerance is generally one of concern or chagrin at how divided the country is now – but you never hear outrage or indignation at how bigoted and prejudiced people are becoming. Partly that’s due to the fact that Republicans and Democrats are forces of roughly equal strength, so there’s no overdog/underdog dynamic here, no victim of oppression to sympathize with. And partly it’s due to the fact that ideological zeal is seen as a kind of idealism, so we regard fire-breathers (on our side, at least) as having their hearts in the right place. 

It’s time we shed our blinders and look squarely at the ugliness of what’s going on. Disrespect for people with different political views should be condemned and stigmatized in the same way and for the same reasons that open avowals of religious and racial bigotry are condemned and stigmatized. Religious toleration maintains the peace and fosters social trust by making space for intractable and combustible differences. It creates this space by drawing a line between beliefs and actions: Our toleration consists of judging people based on how they act toward others, not whatever religious beliefs they hold in their hearts. In the contemporary United States, though, political differences have become considerably more divisive than religious ones. Our interest in social harmony therefore requires us to make space for these intractable and combustible differences in belief as well. Furthermore, we are led to embrace political tolerance, just as we embraced religious tolerance, not only out of expediency but from considerations of basic fairness. People with different political views, just like people with different religious convictions, can all be loving spouses and parents, loyal friends, reliable co-workers, and good neighbors. To condemn someone in the round solely on the basis of their beliefs, while ignoring everything good about them, is disproportionate and narrow-minded. We cannot be good citizens by being unfair to each other.

Meanwhile, one of the reasons we have come to think of racial animus as so cruel and unfair is that the victims of prejudice are being judged and condemned for immutable characteristics over which they have no control. Political beliefs aren’t as immutable and out of our control as skin color, but they are quite sticky, and less under our control than we’d like to think. Psychological research – when it can avoid smuggling progressive value judgments into its methods – does offer valuable insight here, showing that differences in political orientation are associated with differences in personality. Using the well-established Big Five model of personality characteristics, two of those five traits – openness to experience and conscientiousness – track closely with social liberalism and conservatism (left-right divides on economic questions are another matter entirely). Ranking high on openness to experience and low on conscientiousness is a strong predictor of social liberalism; people with the opposite pairing are more likely to be socially conservative. These personality traits don’t tend to change much over a person’s lifetime, and they are explained to a significant degree by our genetic makeup.

Individual control over our broad political dispositions is thus rather limited. And when it comes to fleshing out those dispositions with particular opinions on issues of the day, individual agency is also much weaker than commonly supposed. The naïve view of partisan affiliation takes a bottom-up view of things: Individual citizens work out their own opinions about political issues, and then side with the team that most closely reflects their views. But in reality, for most people most of the time, things work much more in a top-down direction. Individuals start by picking a team – largely based on which one seems more populated by “people like me.” They then look to cues from team leaders – politicians or media personalities – to figure out the positions that will make them good team members. The more closely they follow politics, the more tuned in they are to those cues and the more consistently they follow them. 

So if you think it’s wrong to believe someone is your inferior, and that it’s therefore OK to insult them, simply because they look different or worship a different God – then you have good reasons to believe that partisan bigotry is wrong as well. If there is a path back from the abyss we’re now staring into, it begins with this realization.

In closing, a few quick qualifications. Although we should always treat our fellow citizens with civility and respect, we are less constrained when it comes to our political leaders, both elected and in the media. These are public figures who wield power and authority to lead or mislead us. They can be presumed to know what they’re doing and should be held to account when they misuse or abuse the public trust. They chose to be in the kitchen; they can take some heat.

And while tolerance is a cardinal virtue, tolerance of intolerance can go too far. Here that means that the presumption of good faith we should extend to our fellow citizens needs to be conditioned on their rejection of violence and acceptance of democratic procedures. Within the game of democracy, all are civic equals and nobody is the enemy. Try to wreck the game, though, and you forfeit your entitlement to respect. To make that more specific: People on the right who now call for, encourage, or engage in violent resistance have crossed a red line. They deserve our full-throated condemnation and, when appropriate, the full weight of legal consequences.

Finally, although we now consider religious opinions to be a private matter, political opinions are inherently public. It is in their nature to be contested, debated, cheered and jeered. So while today it is considered rude to declare publicly that other people’s religious beliefs are wrong or stupid or dangerous, we need not observe such niceties in the political arena. We come to the arena to compete and win; we should hit clean, but it’s OK to hit hard. In particular, we are under no obligations to grant any credence to right-wing media agitprop or the latest preposterous conspiracy theory.

In this essay, I’ve argued that the Prime Directive of democratic civic virtue is essentially negative in character: Don’t forget that your political opponents are your fellow citizens and civic equals, and never think of them or treat them as your enemies. But what about affirmative virtues of democratic life? The Prime Directive tells us what’s out of bounds, but are there rules or standards for what constitutes moral excellence when we are in the political fray? I believe that there are, and two rules in particular seem especially important to stress in the present moment – because, alas, both are so roundly ignored and flouted. These affirmative rules for healthy democratic competition will be the subject of a companion essay to follow.

Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons