Civility in Politics? In Your Dreams

The good old days of civil political discourse.
It’s become quite fashionable these days to complain about the lack of civility and reason in our political discourse. This lament from Jonathan Gelbart’s [Op-Ed]( in today’s Daily is typical:

“They have replaced reason with partisanship, ensuring that endless, useless bickering silences rationality and innovation on every occasion.”

And it’s mostly true, of course. But implicit in this statement is the idea that once upon a time, there was a golden age of American political discourse, when politicians calmly debated substantive issues and refrained from name-calling and vicious rhetoric. This fantasy quickly collapses under the weight of historical evidence. Our politicians have been fighting dirty and ignoring the big issues practically since Washington left office. And I’m not even talking about the glaring modern examples- McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the Clinton scandals, the partisan furor surrounding Watergate, or the fracas over the Vietnam War. A quick search of Wikipedia will reveal that:

  • The election of 1796 (Adams vs. Jefferson) was “bitter and characterized by slander and personal attacks on both sides,” with Democratic-Republicans claiming that Adams wanted to install a monarchy and Federalists denouncing Jefferson’s party as bloody revolutionaries.
  • In the election of 1828, handbills printed by supporters of John Q. Adams alleged that Andrew Jackson had summarily executed deserters, that his wife was a bigamist, and that his mother was a British prostitute. Adams, on the other hand, was accused of having “surrendered an American serving girl to the appetites of the Czar” while in Russia.
  • In the campaign of 1852, voters were so disgusted with the candidates (Franklin Pierce and Winfield Scott) that Daniel Webster was able to receive a decent share of the vote in several states, despite the unfortunate handicap of being dead.
  • In 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner senseless with a cane on the floor of the Senate because Sumner gave an abolitionist speech in which he insulted one of Brooks’ relatives.

The list, as any student of American history could tell you, could go on forever. The halcyon days of rational political discourse that so many commentators yearn for never existed. And we’re going to have to learn to live with the fact that a bunch of politicians arguing about important issues will always sound a lot like guests on the Jerry Springer show, and not at all like a college debate team.

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