Is Civility Getting in the Way of Progress?

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s incendiary comments leave Michigan politics in a very uncivil place.

The beginning of the Biden Administration has been marred by the debate around calls for unity and civility. This argument comes on the heels of a violent insurrection at the Capitol and a contentious impeachment trial in the Senate. President Biden ran on a promise to restore civility to our politics, but since he has been elected, a public dialogue has unfolded about what civility really means.

Michigan is facing its own issue with polite politics. After years of business groups promoting civility in government, Lansing is as uncivil as ever. Last week, the top Republican in state government was caught on tape calling the Capitol insurrection a “hoax” and making sexist and violent comments about Governor Gretchen Whitmer. He has yet to face any substantial consequences, and the same business groups that claim to champion civility have not said they’d stop financially backing Shirkey or other Republicans.

Listen: What civility means for progress and prosperity.


Chad Livengood, a senior editor at Crain’s Detroit Business, wrote a column in Crain’s last week titled “Business leaders want political civility? Show Mike Shirkey the door.” He says Shirkey’s comments were made to placate some of the most conservative groups in the state, underscoring just how far Michigan’s politics have drifted. The Senate Majority Leader’s most recent comments didn’t come as much of a surprise as he has used misogynistic and xenophobic language in the past. Livengood says there is no way to achieve civility while the Senate leader makes such inflammatory and threatening remarks toward Governor Whitmer. “I just don’t see how we can possibly get any kind of meaningful public policy (advanced) through in the next couple of years under Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey,” says Livengood.

He argues that Michigan’s turbulent political climate and embrace of dangerous rhetoric may scare off out-of-state investors. “This type of thing does matter, it does get noticed nationally… I think we’re going to have businesses passing over Michigan if they think we’re morally bankrupt and have these kinds of politicians leading us,” says Livengood. He adds that business groups should put their money where their mouth is and hold Shirkey and other top Republicans accountable by halting political contributions.

Alex Zamalin is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Detroit-Mercy. He is also the author of a new book titled “Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility.” He says calls for civility historically have been weaponized against those seeking justice and progress. According to Zamalin, as abolitionists were picking up steam, John C. Calhoun gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, demonizing the movement, calling the participants uncivil. “What struck me was how pervasive and insidious these calls for civility really were, not really from folks who were committed to racial justice, but just the opposite,” says Zamalin on the deployment of civility in the 1800s.

Throughout American history, Zamlin says, calls for racial progress have been met by demands for civility. “I think civility as an object, as a goal, when it comes to racial justice, is not what we should be focusing on. I think we should be focusing on justice and freedom,” says Zamalin. He adds that framing America’s political discourse around the goal of civility is dangerous. “It allows the most racist and reactionary people to have a voice at the table,” says Zamalin. 

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