Higgins: Civil political discourseWritten by Tim Higgins | | firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the first presidential election to be held since the Supreme Court’s “Citizen United” decision where money was deemed to be equivalent to speech. Already there’s a clamor that there’s too much money in politics (usually by those not raising as much); and that because of these candidate bankrolls, the political rhetoric of today’s campaigns is likely to be especially uncivilized. We are further told that because of this barbarous trend, reasoned political debate may no longer be possible in this country.
Apparently the concept of a “debate” has been so debased or so difficult to comprehend that its definition is lost on those in politics. Debate is a contest of ideas (hopefully based on fact and principle) by opposing people or groups. One point of view may eventually carry the day or common ground may be discovered between the two, but neither result involves casting aside the core principles that define either side in some twisted form of political expediency.
If that were the standard, there would be no United States. The founding fathers would have instead discarded the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and accepted whatever Parliament and King George granted them in 1776. Perhaps like Canada, we too would have been granted home rule over time, but our history would be far different than we know it.
Speaking of history … we are likewise told that never in this country’s history has political rhetoric been so acrimonious. Such statements are glaring proof that the education system spends too much time focusing on self-esteem and not enough on history. Early national campaigns were often filled with defamatory remarks, spurious claims, and vitriolic personal attacks; mostly written anonymously by political opponents or their minions and printed in newspapers that had yet to define a set of ethics for themselves (unlike today, when most simply ignore them). John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both scurrilously attacked by fair means and foul during their political careers in ways that would make much of today’s rhetoric seem tame by comparison.
Aaron Burr fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton over the provocative comments made regarding Mr. Burr’s character during the New York gubernatorial election of 1804, and Hamilton’s promising political career was cut short in a form of discourse requiring pistols. Andrew Jackson had 13 such debates (all before becoming president), mostly with men goaded into such contests by his political rivals over the rather confusing marital status of Rachel Donelson-Robards, who became his first lady. (It was said that Jackson carried so much lead in his body from these confrontations that he rattled when he walked.) Political debate in Washington even turned from rhetoric to physical violence within the halls of Congress itself, when, in 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks beat Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate after Sumner made remarks comparing Brooks’ relative to a pimp during an anti-slavery speech.
Recent history hasn’t seen an increase in the inflammatory nature of the invective as much as it’s seen the media place any transgressions front and center in their broadcasts, while carefully editing even minor breaches into suitably reprehensible sound-bites. Such mischief can then be exaggerated further by political pundits, unemployed between elections, craving attention to make up for their lack of power, and usually peddling a book or website, in order titillate an audience into believing that minor misbehavior is an atrocity.
As for those now moderating these efforts who once called themselves “journalists,” many are no longer worthy of the title and dignity that went with it. Unwilling or incapable of sticking to the facts, their efforts are now instead more a careful orchestration and slanting of the few facts that they bother to mention. Secure in their bully pulpits and in the best traditions of a fire and brimstone preacher, they call down hellfire on ideological opponents in the name of “presenting truth.”
Not so strangely in all of this, however, any proposed rules of civility in political debate often seem to favor incumbents over challengers and professional politicians over political neophytes. In spite of realizing that those already in power have more to potentially “trade” for support, limits continue to be sought to the money that can be raised by a new candidate or campaign, but never for the accumulated war chests of incumbents.
The question before us today therefore is not about whether the political debate, like any other behavior in this country, should be more civil. Not only has history taught us that this was never so, but modern society constantly reminds us that civility is no longer a standard to which we aspire. The question instead is whether it should be regulated, and the answer is as simple as it is obvious … no.