It’s fun watching Nancy Mace take down Marjorie Taylor Greene. But does it do any good?

This is a satisfying Twitter row — but recent history tells us that abandoning common civility doesn’t often pay off

Andrew Naughtie
Wednesday 01 December 2021 19:07 GMT
Marjorie Taylor Greene
Marjorie Taylor Greene (Getty Images)

If “bless your heart” is the most chilling phrase that a southerner can speak, South Carolina Congresswoman Nancy Mace’s “bless her f***ing heart” adds a delightful bit of fire to the ice. And in Marjorie Taylor Greene, she chose the most deserving of targets.

That line is the perfect political smackdown. It’s concise, it has a good cadence, it simultaneously gives a waspish southern smile and bares the gritted teeth behind it. It is precisely the right kind of insult for Greene, someone all too easily dismissed as “crazy” even though it’s quite clear she retains the capacity to monitor and reflect on her own thoughts.

How satisfying it is to see her dismissed by someone on her own level – not a condescending older man from the other side, but a southern Republican congresswoman her own age. This is the attack on Greene many living outside the toxic right-wing terrarium have been dying to see, and that it comes from a Republican who herself worked on Donald Trump’s first campaign makes it all the more delightful.

Better yet, Mace’s stand against Greene is, it seems, a genuine matter of principle. “I have no tolerance for racism, bigotry, religious bigotry, bullshit or lies by anybody, including Marjorie Taylor Greene,” she told The Independent.

“She’s a liar and a grifter of the first order. And I don’t tolerate from Democrats or Republicans and I’ve been clear, I’ve been consistent on that since the day I got elected and I’m not going to put up with any of her bullsh*t, never have and never will.”

Now, there are qualifications to be issued. Mace has drawn consistent mockery for her myopic focus on “antifa” at the expense of right-wing domestic terrorism, a fixation that seems to stem from an incident where her house was allegedly defaced with anarchist symbols. She also recently went on Fox News to tout the benefits of “natural immunity” to Covid-19 before banging the drum for vaccination on CNN. Then again, she also voted to hold Steve Bannon in contempt for defying a January 6th committee subpoena. Anyone joining the ranks of Republicans prepared to stand up against extremism is surely to be welcomed.

That said, is this really the way to do it? Maybe embracing the barrage-of-furious-tweets method of political battle simply indulges Greene’s own warped worldview of politics as radioactive mudfight. Maybe going from “bless her heart” to “bless her f***ing heart” counts as an escalation beyond the limits of polite discourse.

Mace’s attack hardly rises to the same level as Lauren Boebert mocking Ilhan Omar as a member of the “jihad squad” and exposing her Democratic colleague to a wave of death threats — or, for that matter, Paul Gosar mocking up a video of himself stabbing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Greene’s feelings at being called a “grifter” are not a sensible matter of concern.

But yet again, by introducing profanity and character assassination into a political attack, Mace has walked us back into the endless debate over what level of “civility” that befits a healthy democracy.

Grappling with that question under the current circumstances is not easy. For one thing, the US does not currently have the benefit of a healthy democracy; it has a democracy on life support, helplessly laid up in hospital while crazed night-shift medics crowd around its ventilator looking for the off switch. In these circumstances, the republic’s survival does not hang on the question of how nicely its elected staff treat each other.

Debating how to respond to Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert with the maximum level of civility raises the notion of a world where we always meet them with lucid empathy, whatever they do or say. But if open, smiling, expletive-free dialogue really is the engine oil for deliberative democracy, it must be asked why the Barack Obamas and Joe Bidens and Lisa Murkowskis and Mitt Romneys of this world have so far failed to keep it on the road.

Yet on right and left, those who’ve abandoned civility wholesale have failed as often as they’ve succeeded. Look at the Lincoln Project, whose euphorically caustic 2020 ads seem to have simply sucked fundraising dollars into races the Republicans still won. Look at the enduring faction of hardcore, mercilessly tribal Bernie Sanders supporters who fought viciously for their guy in 2020 only to see him butt up against the same ceiling he did in 2016 – defeated by not only a relative centrist, but one whose chosen running-mate had already called him out for finding an amicable modus vivendi with hardline southern segregationists. And of course, look at Donald Trump, the apogee of uncivil discourse and the chosen avatar of multiple anti-social movements that range from just plain obnoxious to borderline genocidal. For all the disasters of the last six years since his campaign really gathered steam, Trump lost – badly – and his attempted self-coup failed to change that.

What could and very well might change things is the brazen Republican assault on the institutions of American democracy. This is an attack being launched in every domain – social life, cultural norms, legal precedent, mechanical state apparatus. It must be stopped.

When stacked against a movement of cruel, shameless and sometimes deranged belligerents, it can seem absurd to cling on to the idea that politesse will somehow clear the air and avert disaster. (The institutional sentimentality Joe Biden has previously shown towards the Senate is clearly no longer warranted.) But however muscular and aggressive the defensive action has to be, everyone will have to live through it.

Mace has given the anti-Greenes of this world a gift with her principled broadside – a glimpse of what it could feel like if the more principled and fair-minded individuals in her party finally let it rip. But the likes of Greene will never change their behavior in response to harsh words, however thrilling it might be to hear them.

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