Liddick: Political incivility
January 17, 2010
“My opponent displays a majestic, supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut.”
“Theirs is the party of rum, Romanism and rebellion.”
“Elect that man, and the Pope in Rome will control the White House.”
And you thought politics today was impolite. At least nowadays, it would be considered bad form to call a presidential candidate a bigamist and murderer – let alone to parade an infant down Pennsylvania Avenue, claiming that he was the president’s illegitimate child. But these behaviors, and much worse, are common fare throughout the our history of partisan politics.
Anyone remember “Hey, hey, LBJ – how many kids did you kill today?” Or Richard Nixon categorizing antiwar protesters as “bums,” to the cheers of New York City ironworkers? As one of the “bums,” I have long suspected that the Founding Fathers were right to be concerned about the long-term effects of this whole “faction” thing.
Incivility is the sand in the gears of political discourse. It alters the focus of debate, and vastly increases the difficulty of reaching agreement on a course of action or policy. And the more controversial the action is, the greater the danger that intemperate behavior will stymie any consensus, no matter how necessary.
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Incivility is protean, with many roots and forms, not all of them as straightforward as threatening to blow up or shoot an offending lawmaker.
If one promises “no new taxes,” affixing one’s signature to one of the largest tax increases in American history is an act of betrayal, not of civility. And it doesn’t matter whether your name is George HW Bush, or Barack Obama. This sort of behavior begets cynicism, one of the breeding grounds of incivility.
Similarly, one does not throw the press, the public and even the elected representatives of the opposition party out of the room in which government control of one-sixth of the nation’s economy is being horse-traded, logrolled, bribed and jawboned into shape in violation of the people’s will, all the while praising the closed-door process as “the most transparent in history.” Throwing the people’s representatives out of such a process is uncivil; mischaracterizing it is as well. Both create frustration, the parent of intemperate language.
One does not insist on the most stringent penalties for the violation of good taste by one’s opponents – say, Trent Lott – while seeking to excuse similar gaffes by one’s pals. This form of incivility is hypocrisy, and it breeds rage.
One does not promise measurable results, whether in education, job creation or world peace, and subsequently so often and substantially alter the terms of measurement that any results are meaningless. Such chicanery fosters suspicion, one of incivility’s principal engines.
So, is incivility inevitable for us? Are we condemned to a future of political eye-gouging and smash-mouthing that will leave us all toothless and blind? Not necessarily. In the past, wide swaths of politics – foreign policy in the 1950s and early 1960s, for example – were conducted by measured discourse and occasionally, consensus. But to return to that state, some serious work is going to have to be done by all of us.
We are all going to have to realize that those who espouse politics different from our own are not the enemy, nor are they criminals – mostly. Nor are they of necessity unnaturally stupid. They have different ideas, yes – but they can be reasoned with, and should be.
We are going to have to insist that accountability and transparency are not just words to trot out during election campaigns. They are actually a part of good government, and those who call for them should be honored, not castigated – or brushed aside.
We are going to have to confront people who have difficulty recognizing a fact, and insist that they renew their acquaintance with the difference between black and white, and with the sum of 1+1 being 2.
We are going to have to continually remind ourselves – and each other – that ranting, lying, chicanery, hypocrisy, labeling, name-calling, slander, and other forms of malicious conversation are things to avoid, whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. We’re all going to have to talk to one another, tomorrow, next week, next year. That’s what living in a representative republic is all about: solving our problems by talking them through, whether we like it or not.
And we must all remember this: Only once in our history did we become so inflexible, so intransigent that we could not reach a solution through debate and discussion. How’d that turn out, again?
So let’s decide to like civil discourse. Beats civil war, hands down.