By now people who follow politics in the news are aware of the vast gulf dividing America’s two political parties. The verbal vitriol has gotten so thick and positions so entrenched that I fear the extremists would rather sacrifice the nation’s welfare rather than lose to the other side, and I do not choose the word “lose” lightly. That’s because political discourse, always contentious in this country and sometimes, as in 1861 even breaking down into bloody war, has become a contest, not a search for solutions. Compromise is now something akin to defeat, or even perhaps treason.
Some progressives, particularly the President, has been willing to put entitlement reform on the table in order to get a grand deal that would save the country from financial collapse, although other left-wing hard-liners like Nancy Pelosi won’t consider it. But the GOP has been completely intransigent while endlessly repeating the mantra, “no new taxes”, never mind that business profits have soared and top-earners have historically high compensation while enjoying historically low tax rates
All of which brings me to the main topic of this post, civility in discourse. Even, perhaps especially, politicians are human and subject to emotions and reactive to insult. I can’t see how political solutions are to be found if both sides denigrate and insult each other. Allow me to illustrate with two examples. This first is from a USA Today editorial on December 2, and they are talking about Newt Gingrich:
Too often, he doesn’t just disagree with opponents, he demonizes them. Democrats aren’t just wrong, they’re “corrupt,” or they pose “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” He’s prone to stoking anger, as in comments exploiting fear of Muslims, and to shifting blame, particularly when his actions are questioned. A president may have low opinions of those he has to deal with, but he still has to deal with them. And he has to unite the country.
Gingrich used angry rhetoric to fire up the GOP in the 1990s, giving his party control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. He also probably did more than any other politician of that era to drive the parties apart — a flaw that continues to infect today’s politics. Now it’s up to voters to decide whether the new Newt has changed enough to be capable of undoing some of the damage inflicted by the old Newt.
Contrast that temperament, please, with this one. This is from an interview of Mitt Romney published in today’s Parade magazine:
How would you break the partisan gridlock in D.C.?
By finding people who care more about the country than anything else. And I would intend not to attack the people across the aisle. When I was governor of Massachusetts, with a legislature that was 85 percent Democrat, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if I attacked the House or Senate leaders, I’d get nothing done. I worked with the Speaker and the Senate President. We met every week in one of our three offices for an hour or two, discussed problems that the state faced, and did so off the record.
There you have it – starkly differing attitudes about how to govern. I know which one I prefer, but there are those who prefer Mr. Gingrich’s way. They appear to enjoy what they call “rough and tumble” of debate laced with insulting language and contemptuous nicknames for opposing leaders. For sure, as they state, there is a long history of this kind of “debate” in this country, but I would counter that it has seldom if ever been good for the country. I believe America’s founders intended for there to be compromise. That is why they created three co-equal branches of government, to encourage civil discourse and compromise.
Just off the top of my head I can think of a couple of examples right now of cases where extremists, a.k.a. non-compromisers, prevailed and hurt the country. One was the demonization of many innocent people by Congressman Joseph R. McCarthy in his infamous 1950’s hearings about Communism. He exploited rampant public fear in an
effort to improve his own political career. The second example is Prohibition, a case where single-issue zealous religionists were able to force their intransigent demands on the entire nation. (Can you think of another single-issue bloc in the present time? I can.) At one time the movement’s administrative head, one Wayne B. Wheeler, was considered the most politically-powerful man in America.
Finally, being on the subject of civility, I want to mention that my fellow bloggers Anson Burlingame and Geoff Caldwell have uncivilly challenged a standard of civility I have set on this, my own blog. They have insulted and denigrated me in emails. Anson has used the words, hypocritical, supercilious, and despicable to describe me and stated that he intended to be insulting.
I would like to explain the standard of civility I set for my blog that has so incensed them and which they consider to be “censorship”. It is basically that I will not approve any comment on my blog which personally demeans another commenter or blogger. Please note the adverb “personally”. Criticism of positions and strong language have been and are allowed. The standard was specifically occasioned when Mr. Caldwell insisted in repeatedly calling another Globe blogger, Duane Graham, “Dwain Bwain” and using playground taunts. He has also called me “exponentially ignorant”, among other things. It made me wonder, if I am as bad as he says, why does he even visit my blog?
Here is an excerpt from an email in which I attempted to explain my position to Anson.
Like you, I am a “Globe blogger”. That does not mean that the Joplin Globe endorses what I write, nor have they ever asked me to take a particular position on any issue. What it means to me is they consider what I write, and the way I write, to be of value toward increasing readership for their online issues.
I consider what I write primarily of an editorial nature, and thus reflective of my own opinions. Just as the Globe does I reserve the right to filter the comments I approve according to whatever standards I choose. I know that the Globe routinely rejects editorial letters and columns because of poor writing, poor reasoning, profanity, libel, or just appropriate nature. In this instance, I have publicly set only a single filter – I have asked that comments not contain personal insults or childish gibes, something Geoff does routinely. If he would drop that stuff, I would approve his comments. He is fully aware of this and yet his pride, apparently, will not allow him to forego putting such things in every comment. Does that seem mature to you? It doesn’t to me.
Thus far, out of thousands of visits to my web site Geoff Caldwell is the only commenter that has failed to meet that standard. Now that ought to tell you something.
Finally, as I have stated before, my standard of civility is not censorship. It is housekeeping.
For further reading on political civility I recommend a recent piece by Gene Lyons, one of the best short essays on the subject I have ever read.