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Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Alexandra Hudson on The Soul of Civility


Join Roger Ream ’76 in this week’s Liberty + Leadership Podcast as he speaks with author Alexandra Hudson, Novak ’19. Roger and Lexi discuss her new book, “The Soul of Civility,” why society is in dire need of a touch of humanity and how ‘porching’ can bridge the political and cultural divide. Lexi also shares fascinating excerpts from her book and explains why Larry David may be the foremost defender of civilization in today’s world.

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, speaker, and the founder of Civic Renaissance, a publication and intellectual community dedicated to beauty, goodness, and truth. She has contributed to Fox News, CBS News, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, TIME Magazine, POLITICO and Newsweek. Before becoming a public advocate for civility, Lexi worked on the 2016 Presidential Transition Team, was the special assistant to the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and served as an adjunct professor at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Lexi earned a master’s degree in public policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar and holds a bachelor’s degree from Trinity Western University. She was awarded a 2019 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship from TFAS, where she worked on a project titled “Make ‘Porching’ Great Again: How Front Porch Citizenship Can Save Democracy and the Soul of a Nation.”

Pre-order Lexi’s book at https://alexandraohudson.com/book-preorder/.

Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today I’m joined by Alexandra Hudson, an alumnus of the TFAS Robert Novak Journalism Program. Alexandra is the author of “The Soul of Civility,” which will be released in just a few days, on October 10th. She’s also the founder of Civic Renaissance. Today, we’ll be hearing about how Alexandra works to promote civility in our highly polarized world, even when it means telling someone they’re wrong and about what giving back means to her. Alexandra, thanks for joining us. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Alexandra Hudson [00:00:55] Roger, so great to be with you. Thank you for having me.

Roger Ream [00:00:59] Let me first begin with your Novak Fellowship project. In 2000, you had a Novak Fellowship, and your project had a fascinating title “Making Porching Great Again: How Front Porch Citizenship Can Save Democracy and the Soul of the Nation.” What did your research cover during that project?

Alexandra Hudson [00:01:23] So, before we jumped on this call, Roger, we talked about how I had a conversation with you about an idea for this project when I was in the belly of the beast, when I was in the heart of government in this very divided season and very divided moment, and I remember we got we got coffee and I brought this little piece of paper to you with some bullet points, some thoughts in my head about things that were wrong with the status quo and maybe some ideas for solution. It’s funny that ended up becoming a journey and germinating for four years and then becoming what would become my Novak project. I’m someone who loves ideas, loves learning and loves conversation and community. I remember going into government and being really struck by the utter absence of kind of just these basic things necessary for human flourishing. It was for me, kind of an environment of anti-flourishing. I saw these two extremes. On one hand, there were these people with sharp elbows, they were hostile and aggressive, and you knew where they stood. They were willing to step on anyone to get ahead and to get their name and their goals in life. And then on the other hand, there was this contingent, at first, I thought that they were my people. They were polished and poised and polite. And these are the people that I learned would smile at you, flatter you, and then stab you in the back the moment that you no longer served their purposes. And at first, I was puzzled by this latter contingent. Growing up, my mother, who taught manners, she said to me that manners matter. They were an outward extension of our inward character. And yet here I was, surrounded by people who are well-mannered enough and yet ruthless and cruel. And at first, I thought these were two extremes. And then I realized these are two sides of the same coin, because both modes of interaction, they instrumentalized others. They saw others to their selfish ends. One was willing to step on them, the other was willing to manipulate them. The extreme was willing to manipulate others to get ahead, but both were willing to use other ways to it to achieve their goals. So, I left government sort of sort of furiously working on this book after a year in government and fled to the American Midwest. I had in my mind, you know, the rolling hills and the bucolic pastures of the American Midwest. My husband is from Indiana originally, and we had planned to move back there at some point to raise a family. And then when we when we moved there, though, after I left government, I met a woman named Joanna Taft. She came up to me after church one day and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Joanna, would you like to porch with us sometime?” She said to me. I was intrigued. I had never heard the word porching used as a verb before. So, curious and intrigued, my husband and I went to her porch that afternoon, and what I saw surprised me. It didn’t have the extremes of what I had seen in government, the extreme hostility or the extreme politeness. It was like raw, it was authentic, it was candid, it was affectionate, it was jovial. I realized that Joanna had curated this space on her porch of people across difference, across political difference, geographic difference, racial difference, to just have it a shared space together, to build social trust and friendship that could enable authentic and real conversations. It was a totally different mode of being, and I realized that from her porch, she was staging this quiet revolution, this porching revolution that was her little vantage point from whence she was healing our social fabric and healing our world. So, part of my Novak Fellowship was looking at Joanna and people like her across the country who are doing the same thing. They’re recognizing that they can’t control what’s happening in Washington, the tweet of the day, the scandal of the day, but they can make their communities, their families, their neighborhoods better and stronger and more beautiful, and that there’s power in that. I’ve seen it and I really enjoyed for my Novak Fellowship, documenting that, reporting on that, writing about it for places like the like USA Today and many other outlets. So, I am grateful to TFAS for that support.

Roger Ream [00:05:47] I assume, or you should explain, I guess, that portraying doesn’t require you to have a physical porch necessarily. You can porch without it being on your porch, right?

Alexandra Hudson [00:05:57] It’s a disposition. It’s a way of seeing others, like civility. Seeing others as beings with equal moral worth to us. So, part of my argument in my book and what I observed on Joanna’s porch helped me clarify in my mind that there is this essential distinction between civility and politeness, that politeness is manners. It’s etiquette. It’s morals, it’s behavior. Civility is a disposition. It’s a way of seeing others as our moral equals that are worthy of respect just because they’re people like us, and that sometimes respecting others requires telling them that they’re wrong, telling hard truths, engaging in robust debate. That’s what I saw on Joanna’s front porch, and I saw and worked alongside and observed and met with people across the country who, through their civility, are healing our social fabric, again, with or without a front porch, could be a stoop, it can be a front lawn, it can be a local coffee shop just holding court. It’s just a way of engaging with others and the world of wanting to transform outsiders into insiders and strangers into friends, and that’s the stuff that will tend to change our world and revive civility in our world.

Roger Ream [00:07:17] Well, your book, which is just out and available at wherever good books are sold, is “The Soul of Civility.” It’s subtitled “Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.” It’s got a beautiful cover, which I want to talk about maybe a little later. Civility is something that’s much talked about today, mostly the opposite, I guess, the polarization of our society is a subject that people all complain about, but nobody really offers a good roadmap to how we reduce polarization, how do we promote civility. So, I think what’s great about your book is you’ve kind of dug down into what these words mean, what is civility? As you just contrasted it a minute ago between manners and civility, politeness and civility. Give us a quick kind of synopsis of your book and how you treat this subject.

Alexandra Hudson [00:08:21] So, this difference between civility and politeness is central to my book, just to hammer home the distinction. Again, politeness is technique, it’s behavioral. The Latin root of politeness is polier, which means to smooth or to polish, and that’s what politeness does. It focuses on the external alone and it papers over difference, as opposed to giving us the tools to grapple with difference head on. So, civility, the Latin root is covetous, which is the Latin root for city citizenship and citizen. So, civility is the habits and the moors, the duties of citizenship, which again requires debate, conversation, sometimes even protest. Within my conception of civility, I reclaim the whole tradition of civil disobedience. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s system of purification for his peaceful, nonviolent resistance required that those who were participating in his protests first cultivate a deep love and respect for the white supremacist that they were protesting before they protested them. So again, cultivating that inner disposition of love, of affection, of basic respect, that enabled and demanded that they act and through their actions, tell hard truths and confront them with the monstrous nature of their racist and bigoted views. So, again, that’s the distinction between civility and politeness. Throughout the book, I explore why civility is what will promote and sustain freedom and human flourishing and our democracy, and why focusing on the ephemera, focusing on the techniques and the moral and the externals alone is never enough. It will never be. If we just try and tone, please, if we just try and say: “Let’s talk nicer to one another.” Without looking at the root, the inner disposition, if we lack respect for others, like talking nicely together is never going to help us flourish across deep difference. One thing I talk about is that this is the most important question of our day. How do we flourish across deep divides? But it’s also a timeless question. This is the defining question not just of the classical liberal project, but of the human social project. This is the question that we’ve been grappling as long as we’ve been around, because we are profoundly social as a species. We thrive in relationship and in community with others. We become fully human in relationship, and yet we’re also defined by self-love. We are morally, biologically driven to meet our own needs before others, and those two aspects of who we are, our intention, the social and the selfish. That is why friendship, community, civilization itself is never a foregone conclusion. It is always fragile, and that’s why it’s a timeless promise. The most important question now, and there are many social factors every phenomenon that have contributed to making the problem arguably more severe, such as new technologies, but it’s still a problem of the human condition. No public policy, no panacea, is going to make it, you know, disappear like that. So, I think that offers a much-needed humility as we talk about this issue, that it’s not going away. There’s no magic bullet.

Roger Ream [00:11:51] To what-to-what extent do you think we need something deep, like, I’ll call it a religious revival or a moral reawakening in order to reclaim this classic sense of civility and citizenship and looking at other people as having human dignity. I mean, it seems like we’ve gone so far away from this. As you write, a free society requires that we have civility, that we treat others with human dignity. It’s obviously not easily reclaimed and renewed, but are you hopeful that your book leads the way?

Alexandra Hudson [00:12:33] Yes. I hope that my book just starts an important and much needed conversation. I am grateful to be the latest in a long lineage of thoughtful observers of the timeless principles of human flourishing, of human nature, the human condition that have been the voice of reason and moral revival to world for your phraseology for their generations. For example, did you know, Roger, that the oldest book in the world is a civility book given to us from ancient Egypt, 2700 B.C.? It’s called “The Teachings of Ptahhotep,” and it’s the oldest book in the world, and it’s 38 maxims or teachings on the stuff of human flourishing, the stuff of the life well lived.

Roger Ream [00:13:27] Ancient Egypt is known for its very difficult polarization, I think. No, that’s fascinating. I was not aware of that, Lexy, so I’ve learned something new and interesting. So, talk about it. That’s fascinating.

Alexandra Hudson [00:13:43] The what’s funny? What’s fun when you read this book. But you, you know, you can do online right now is that it’s remarkably timeless and relevant. All this conventional wisdom about how to do life together. Ptahhotep, he was someone who had been his whole life in the room where it happens, he had reached the pinnacle of political and worldly success. In fact, he was offered a position to be Pharaoh, and he turned that down to retire quiet life and simplicity. It was after he retired that he put pen to paper and thought about the stuff of human flourishing. He wrote down these maxims for the Pharaoh’s son, but also for posterity, and they were very widely consumed across Egyptian society and for many generations, and they continue to be relevant to this day. For example, one of the first maxims Ptahhotep society says: “Be kind to people whom you have power over. Don’t abuse the powerless in society. Don’t abuse a power differential.” He says: “Don’t be good to your friends just when you want something, be good to them all the time, just because they are friends, just because they’re people.” Ptahhotep says: “Do not gossip,” and it’s remarkable the continuity across history and culture, the admonition against gossip. Thoughtful observers of the human condition have noticed that human beings, we love to chitter-chatter, we love to talk about others, to make ourselves feel better and superior. That’s an expression of our self-love, of the selfishness in our nature. In fact, in Hebrew Bible, the word for leprosy is etymological link to the word for gossip, because just as leprosy corrodes the body, that’s what gossip does to social trust and social cohesion a human community. It’s evocative visual. So anyway, if you look at these teachings of Ptahhotep, they could be at a miss Manners column in the Washington Post, and they were written nearly 5000 years ago, and that’s really fun, and that was a fun chapter to write my chapter to where I saw kind of the greatest hits of this this civility genre, people who, again, they wouldn’t have had to write down these maxims, these teachings, these handbooks on civility if everyone were following them already, right? Ptahhotep wouldn’t have written them down, if he thought that no one needed them. I wouldn’t have written this book if I thought no one needed it, but thoughtful people who care about their society have done this for a very long time. Every few generations they must sit down, and we have to get back to the basics and say: ” What is this thing called society and what is the role that we each have in this joint project of living, this joint partnership of living well with others, and how do we how do we sustain it or undermine it with our daily interactions?”

Roger Ream [00:16:27] There’s clearly a connection to this concept, to the idea of freedom. We’ve touched on that a little, but some things I’ve read that you’ve written, I can’t pull it up right away, whether it’s in your book or read it elsewhere, you’ve talked about the fact that if we don’t have this type of civility in society, it’ll likely lead to more government intervention. You wrote a column about political efforts that have been done by Mayor Bloomberg in New York in the past, in London and Paris to try to in sense impose politeness and, in some cases, civility on people. Talk some about that. That was an interesting piece you wrote.

Alexandra Hudson [00:17:14] Yes. So, that’s some of that research and those ideas find their way in my chapter three or chapter four on freedom and flourishing, why civility supports our freedom and flourishing. I argue that we each have a role to play in ensuring our government stays limited in nature. There are two relationships. There are two social contracts and human social life. There’s the traditional social contract that Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau wrote about in our very students of political philosophy, you’ll be familiar with this, it’s the social contract between the citizen and the state. We surrender our citizens certain rights for the state to protect certain rights. There’s also, though, a horizontal social contract between citizens, and this social contract is not governed. It’s governed by social norms, and that horizontal social contract supports the vertical one. So, if that horizontal social contract is contravened, if that diminishes, then our vertical social contract, our political regime, our democracy, it suffers. We’ve seen this time and time again across history, and in that chapter, I talk about a few examples in recent history where this has been the case. So, for example, apparently in the early 2000s, incivility had reached this fever pitch in New York City. And Michael Bloomberg took it upon himself to do something about it. He instituted this whole politeness campaign where New Yorkers could be fined $50 if they were texting in the movie theater, if they were too rambunctious at their child’s baseball game and yelling too loudly. If they put their feet rudely on the subway seat next to them so another person could sit down, fined $50, if they spit on the street. You know, like these are annoying, obnoxious, discourteous things, but they’re not necessarily something that we want the government involved with. We don’t want our daily lives micromanaged in that way. And so, of course, New Yorkers did not like being micromanaged by their local city government, and that did not last long, and it was also unenforceable. If we don’t want a totalitarian state watching our every move and fining us for every micro infringement, we need to recognize that we have to have a role of self-control and there is a role for self-governance in our daily interactions that, again, we own. If we don’t want the government to own them, then we have to own them. And in fact, I pivot from there to make the case that Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld and the star of one of my favorite shows, it’s a whole comedy of manners called “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I argue that Larry David may be the foremost defender of civilization today, because if we don’t want Mayor Bloomberg, you know, enforcing manners on the top down when we need a few, Larry David’s in the world. The people that are going to keep you in check. He calls himself in one episode a social assassin. He says: “I’m a social assassin.” He’s someone that sees someone doing a social infraction and he’ll call them out. He’s everyone’s inner ego and inner id. Of course, the conceit of the show is that he’s always calling everyone out for their social infractions, and then at the end of every show, he falls short of whatever it is he was calling someone out for at the very beginning. We need a few Larry David’s in the world to promote human flourishing and self-governance. Too many people who are too litigious and calling it time, that would be intolerable, but a few are good if we want to want government to stay limited.

Roger Ream [00:21:14] What about the role of family? Strong families are obviously necessary for a strong civil society, right?

Alexandra Hudson [00:21:24] Absolutely. I have a whole chapter on education and that looks at both classrooms, but also the home life. Parents are their children’s first, best and most important teacher. And there is this sort of ecosystem that has to be at play between teachers and the classroom and the home life where we are values, pro human values are inculcated and reinforced through education. I link the ancient Greek conception of education called Paideia, to modern day civility. So, Paideia wasn’t just education, it was also culture, and it was also soul craft. It was education as ordering loves, helping us love ourselves a little bit less and loving others a little bit more. This is how Plato conceived of a just soul and a just society individual whose loves were rightly ordered and a society that that valued the right things in their proper order. Saint Augustine talked about the ordo a Morris that we have to consciously cultivate, loves that are rightly ordered, forgotten, that rightly ordered love was the dual commandment. Love of God first and others other second ourselves less. But how that’s not natural to us that that saying that there’s an act of cultivation, an act of the will and act of nurturing and saying that happens and that ought to happen in our educational systems. So, I look at modern day examples of that. There’s a fabulous charter school network called the Great Hearts Academy, their public school system, charter school network in Phoenix and Texas. They are inculcating these values and this vision of education as soul craft, as ordering the loves and the secular public-school systems that it does have roots in the classical education, that that does predate Christian history, but also is inextricably linked from with Christian history, but it’s happening in the public and the public school system phenomenally. Exposing students to beauty in a way that displaces the self, that helps us unself as Iris Murdoch, the Irish philosopher said, and help us love others more. That’s what the project of education is and families have an essential role in that schools, have an essential role of that the Larry David’s of the world have a role in that. They’re the ones that come up to you and say: “You know what? This is society. You can’t just act as if you’re alone and on a desert island. You have obligations to others, you know? We each have a role to play in that.” But yes, of course, that starts and really ends in the home.

Roger Ream [00:24:20] It’s great the way you bring in so many different scholars and thinkers from Marcus Aurelius to Tocqueville, Socrates and Plato and home in on concepts like respect and human dignity, kindness, truth, neighborliness. I would be interested in talking a little bit about what you’ll be doing from now to over the next few months to promote the book. I know that if people preorder it, which they might still have a chance to do, I’m not sure we’re right around the release date, but I’ve preordered a copy and you’re offering some interesting gifts to those who preorder?

Alexandra Hudson [00:25:05] Yes. I’ve created a preorder gift package, a thank you gift package. So, everyone who preorders the book go to my website: alexandraohudson.com. and claim those gifts have $100 worth of gifts. It’s an e-book, a whole course called “Four Civility Books that Will Change Your Life,” a toolkit on how to talk to anyone about anything, and several other goodies that I think you’ll enjoy. So, please thank you for considering pre-ordering the book and for claiming your gifts there. And then I’m also putting together a civility summit with some of the most surprising and interesting thinkers and practitioners of our day. I just got off the phone off my conversation with George Will, talking about the habits of a democracy, the norms of a free and flourishing society, Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana, David French of The New York Times. I interviewed Francis Fukuyama about this yesterday, exploring the role of social trust and cohesion in society. I’m just grateful. Jonathan Hi, Tyler Cowan, Kim Scott, Chloe Valderrama. So, grateful for the people that we have lined up. They care about this topic because it’s an essential topic and essential question. So, please join this free summit. It’s called “Civility: Overrated or Underrated.” If you just Google that, it’ll pop up on Eventbrite. Please claim your free spot, invite others and join us in this essential conversation.

Roger Ream [00:26:45] Let me add that Mitch Daniels was a previous guest on this on the Liberty and Leadership podcast and is a trustee emeritus of The Fund for American Studies and of course, a Hoosier out there with you and your husband in Indiana. So, I know our time is running short. Could you talk a little bit about the cover? I mean, it’s a beautiful cover art you’ve done and it’s meaningful, and I thought it’d be nice for you to say something about that.

Alexandra Hudson [00:27:12] Thank you. So, I believe deeply in the power of beauty and harnessing the power of beauty, and I sought to do that with the cover. We worked with a wonderfully talented artist, Yung Lim. So, thank you, Yung Lim for the creating this work of art. It’s an olive branch and the olive branch are important symbolically for many reasons. There’s a lot of classical connotations in my book, that for better or for worse, that the Greco-Roman world built, the world that we live in now, the world that we inhabit today, whether we realize it or not. So, I did a lot of, you know deep learning, deep thinking, immersed in the and classicism. So, the olive branch pays homage to the classical world. In the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, after God floods the Earth, Noah sends out a dove to see if there is dry land, and then the dove comes back with an olive branch in its mouth, and that symbolizes the flood is over and it symbolizes this rebirth, this new beginning, this fresh start and my hope is that this book can symbolize a a watershed moment, maybe offer a fresh beginning for us to have new conversations, a new era of healing. And, of course, the symbolism of the olive branch being this this symbol of peace and reconciliation as well. And I love that it’s a watercolor. Watercolor is a very forgiving medium. And I talk about forgiveness a lot in the book, and if you look at the cover, it’s very much an active work of art. There’s watermark speckles and I wanted to evoke this imagery as if the artist had just lifted his or her brush off the canvas and I wanted that to symbolize that this joint project of civilization is a work in progress, is never fully complete, and that we each have a role to play in upholding it or undermining it. So, layers of symbolism, there’s more much more I could say on it, but thank you for noticing and for appreciating the art. I think that Yung Lim did an excellent job. So, thank you.

Roger Ream [00:29:29] So, I will end with just a strong pitch to listeners to buy a copy of “The Soul of Civility.” It’s worth it for the cover, but it’s what’s inside that don’t really have an impact. I congratulate you on the publication of the book, Lexy, and thank you for joining me today to talk about it. Alexandra Hudson, The Soul of Civility. Thanks so much for the conversation.

Alexandra Hudson [00:29:57] Thanks, Roger. Appreciate your having me.

Roger Ream [00:30:00] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@tfas.org. A Liberty and Leadership podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host, Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.

About the Podcast

TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.

If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.

View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.


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