DURING the fall of 1996, I happened to hear on the radio an interview in which an academic from Eastern Europe scoffed at the idea that his country should adopt American-style democracy. Pointing to the bickering and partisan posturing that often stifle serious dialogue in the United States, he asked what exactly was so good about our system. As we watch the collapse of civility in America, he is hardly the only one asking that question. From visitors to volunteers to voters, everybody seems to be wondering why Americans treat each other so shabbily.
Georges Clemenceau once referred to the United States as "the only nation in history which has miraculously gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilisation." He was, as usual, overstating, but he also captured an attitude that Americans have held about their own nation (and that Europeans have held about Americans) almost from the nation's inception: civility is in a decline. And Americans today are like Americans of every era. We think our nation's manners are falling apart. Some three out of four of us think civility has declined over the past decade. An even greater number think drivers are particularly uncivil. As for our politicians, they finish below professional athletes when the public is asked to rank different groups according to civility. In short, although we Americans have always thought civility is collapsing, I think, this time, we might be right.
In this book, I try to analyze what has happened to civility in the United States, why it matters, and what we can do about it. This book represents the second in a series that began with Integrity, which was published in 1996. My idea is to write a series of books exploring elements of good character that are, as I wrote there, "pre-political," by which I mean that we should all struggle to exemplify them, whatever our philosophical or partisan differ-