Recently, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the premises in protest against her public actions and statements as President Trump’s press secretary. Sen. Maxine Waters, a Democrat, threw fuel on opponents’ fire, saying Trump administration officials should be told they are “not welcome any more, anywhere.” Many across the political spectrum decried these events as uncivil and a threat to democratic discourse.
This incident and subsequent reactions raise questions. One is especially important for us as Americans: is it right, as a matter of public morality, for citizens to challenge, in public to their faces, the morality of actions, statements, and positions of public officials? The question is not whether citizens have a legal right to express their conscientious views but rather, do they do the morally right thing?
The principles and ideals of democracy shape our public morality. Our governing institutions are built on, and answerable to, these fundamental moral standards. Many of them are enshrined in our Constitution. We recognize that citizens and public officials, as individuals, are the essential driving forces of these institutions. Likewise, both bear responsibility for the morality of their actions. Public offices shape officials’ relations and responsibilities, but they do not remove officials from ordinary moral scrutiny. Officials don’t get a pass for doing what government policy or political superiors request.
Economist and philosopher, Adam Smith, wrote, “A moral being is an accountable being . . . a being that must give an account of its actions to some other.” Liability to being held accountable by citizens is a fundamental feature of being a morally responsible public official. Moreover, public officials by virtue of putting themselves in the public, forgo the limits that politeness and courtesy sometimes place on accountability-holding for private individuals.
Also we all recognize that dissent is an essential pillar of democracy, not its unwelcome side effect. The people make their will known in the voting booth, but also, critically, on the streets. Dissent and challenge play an even deeper role in democracy: they are essential to the rule of law, the foundation of democracy.
The rule of law promises protection against the arbitrary exercise of power, insisting that law must rule, not any person, official or government institution. However, law can rule in a political community only when its officials and citizens take responsibility for holding each other accountable.
Many object that current protests threaten to erode civility and democratic discourse. Civility is important for democratic discourse and rule-of-law accountability. Yet, we must resist rushing to the judgment of incivility. Norms of civility can be oppressive, a potent means of muzzling legitimate demands of accountability. Civility should not rule out vigorous articulation of one’s moral views, or actions designed publicly to underline their importance. Civility is not politeness; civil exchanges are often discomfiting and socially unsightly. Civility does not rule out public protest or accountability holding.
A fundamental moral principle, however, shapes all public interactions: mutual respect. Respect is due those who protest and respect is due to those they challenge. This implies that criticism and attacks must target positions or actions, not persons. We must not vilify those we challenge as enemies, but address them as opponents, engage them in dialogue, not exclude them from it. Respect demands reciprocity, thus civility of the most vigorous and discomfiting kind must include willingness to listen.
These principles imply that vigorous public challenge of public officials can be justified. Confrontation anywhere in public space on recognizably moral grounds is likely to be justifiable in the terms of public morality mentioned above. Does this extend to doing things to bring home critical judgments of official behavior? Yes, in many cases. However, public accountability in the name of democracy should not be punitive; public critical assessment and demand for an accounting do not entitle individuals to exact a cost for failing that assessment.
An individual’s refusal to serve a public official whom the individual views as having behaved immorally, or even making certain public officials feel unwelcome, if one is open to hearing the official’s accounting, is justified.