The state legislator who disrupted President Trump’s recent speech at Jamestown has a new target: “The Virginia Way.” Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax County, has an essay in The Atlantic in which he defends his actions:
“Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox said that my disruption was ‘inconsistent with common decency.’
“What Cox and others really meant was that my behavior was inconsistent with the Virginia Way. That’s the term often used to describe the long-standing, unwritten rule book by which Virginia politics is guided. It dictates that compromise, civility, and elite camaraderie are prioritized over bold policy, uncompromising ethics, and strong voices. The Virginia Way says that despite differences in opinion, everyone is assumed to be a good-faith statesman, and therefore it’s best not to rock the boat, but to get things done behind closed doors. It’s the same attitude that has sustained Virginia’s good-ol’-boys’ club. And this behavior is not uniquely Virginian; those everywhere who maintain the status quo discourage deviation, whether it be in manners or in policy.
“What the Virginia Way boils down to is comfort. People in power are used to a certain level of comfort on the job.”
Samirah goes on: “To the critics of incivility, especially those who ‘would have liked to see a little more decorum,’ like one Democratic member of Congress who commented on my actions, I say it’s time to think critically about whom such decorum has traditionally served: the white, wealthy, and comfortable. When the levers of power are stripped from those who are marginalized, disruption is often our only shot at breaking through.”
Wow. There’s an awful lot to unpack there, but we’ll try. Let’s start with Samirah’s contention that “the Virginia Way” prizes “compromise, civility, and elite camaraderie” over “bold policy, uncompromising ethics, and strong voices.” What he really means here is that “compromise, civility, and elite camaraderie” are prioritized over his supposedly bold policy preferences. Simply because a policy is bold doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Many of Trump’s policies are bold and the president’s voice is certainly strong, but Samirah obviously doesn’t prize either of those. Let’s set aside the “uncompromising ethics” part — because we should always want those. However the belief that “bold policy” and “strong voices” should be prioritized over “compromise, civility, and elite camaraderie” has things exactly backwards. Samirah, perhaps unintentionally, wants to upend one of the fundamental tenants of American democracy. The U.S. Constitution — and every state constitution — specifically sets up a system of government intended to promote “compromise” and make it difficult for “strong voices” to push through “bold policy.” Our founders rightly feared “strong voices” because they understood that many of those “strong voices” are likely to be demagogues. Not all strong voices are demagogues but all demagogues are strong voices. For the same reason we shouldn’t confuse a “bold” policy with a good policy, we shouldn’t confuse a “strong voice” with a sound one.
Because our founders were rightly fearful of demagogues, they also rightly feared policies that were hastily rushed through — bold or otherwise. In response, they intentionally created a system of government — a bicameral legislature, a separate executive, and a judiciary on equal footing — that would make it difficult to enact policies unless they enjoyed a reasonably broad consensus. That system — a separation of powers with checks and balances — is specifically intended to restrain those “strong voices” pushing “bold policies” when there is not such broad support. Samirah may be frustrated that his “bold policies” aren’t being enacted, but he should be grateful that the system restrains Trump from enacting every “bold policy” that he wants to see.
Samirah’s real complaint, though, isn’t with process, it’s with tone. It’s with what is often called “civility.” Samirah voices a complaint that is increasingly heard from the left — that civility really just serves “the white, wealthy, and comfortable,” as he puts it. Superficially, this might seem true. Civility, though, serves everyone, perhaps those who find themselves in the minority most of all. Part of Trump’s persona is his basic lack of civility. The corrective to that should not be more of the same, just from the other side of the aisle. Samirah may think himself virtuous when he says that “when the levers of power are stripped from those who are marginalized, disruption is often our only shot at breaking through.” However, by that same logic, another marginalized group — white supremacists — is then empowered to disrupt whatever they please. Those are not the “strong voices” with “bold policies” we want to see shouting down anyone.
We see bad behavior all around — on both sides. We saw a certain incivility when the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington asked Trump’s press secretary to leave. (Do we really want to segregate restaurants by political ideology?) We saw it when a protestor came by the restaurant and dumped chicken manure out front. We saw it last weekend in Kentucky. A group of young men supporting Sen. Mitch McConnell were photographed groping and choking a cut-out of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (this actually goes beyond lack of civility to something much darker and more menacing). We saw it when a group of people gathered outside McConnell’s house to protest, with some chanting vulgar slogans — including someone who shouted “stab the m*********** in the heart.” Samirah standing up during Trump’s speech to shout out a protest isn’t as despicable as the actions above, but it’s all part of the same piece. Everybody there is wrong — every single one of them. Samirah justifies his actions because Trump is “a racist and a bigot.” But it’s hard to draw that line as clearly as he’d like. Once Samirah crosses it for his reasons, somebody on the other side is emboldened to cross it for something they feel just as strongly about, whether racism and bigotry is involved or not. Do we really want to live in a country where it’s acceptable to shout down politicians we don’t agree with? If so, there’s going to be an awful lot of shouting — and perhaps worse.
Here’s why civility really matters: We live in a big, complicated, diverse country. No matter who wins the next election, we’ll all still be here, and we all have to figure out how to live together without killing one another at the Walmart. The “comfort” that Samirah discounts isn’t simply for political leaders; it’s for all of us.