When was political discourse civil in American history?
Was it civil when former Vice President Aaron Burr killed his political rival, Founding Father and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, as depicted below?
Was it civil during the run up to the Civil War, when Missouri Senator Thomas Benton, a Democrat who opposed slavery, verbally attacked Mississippi Democratic Senator Henry Foote, a staunch slavery supporter, the latter whom drew a pistol and pointed it at Benton–only to be stopped from squeezing off a round by colleagues?
Was it civil when South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks (D) nearly beat Mass. Sen. Charles Sumner to death with his walking cane in the Senate Chamber five years before the Civil War, as depicted below?
Or was it civil a few years later when nearly 30 members of the House of Representatives engaged in a brawl over the issue of slavery being extended into Kansas, as the popular editorial cartoon below depicts?
Was political discourse civil when Congress, in 1866, censured Kentucky Representative Lovell Rousseau for whipping Iowa Representative Josiah Grinnell after the latter questioned Rousseau’s military service during the Civil War?
Was American politics civil when Presidents like Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy were assassinated in office by zealots displeased with their political positions? Or when Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had zealots attempt to assassinate them for the same reason?
Was American political discourse civil during the Civil Rights Movement, when newspaper editorials across the south, and politicians across America stoked the flames of racial intolerance? Or was it even civil when the walking political paradox, Lyndon B. Johnson, advocated for civil rights all the while being known for saying “negra,” “nigra,” and “nigger”–including calling Civil Rights legislation “those Nigger Bills,” during his tenure in the Senate and later while serving as vice president and president?
Or, more recently, was the dialogue civil when South Carolina Rep Joe Wilson screamed “You Lie” at President Barack Obama during a State of the Union address? Was it civil for former Rep. Eric Cantor to stand up and walk out of a bipartisan meeting about the debt ceiling with the president while Obama was in mid-sentence?
Indeed, the lack of civility, both historically and presently, has been bipartisan, pronounced, and at times, downright ugly. The worst offenders tend to be on the fringe of both major political parties, but the sad reality is that over the past two decades, we have devolved into a society in which many Americans view politics the same way they do their favorite sports teams. Meaning, so many of us are die-hard and unwilling to criticize the major party players–even when said players are as wrong as two left feet on an issue or act.
On this last point, I guess we can thank former President Ronald Reagan for hastening these truths with his famous commandment to the GOP faithful that “thou shalt not speak ill of Republicans.” Democrats soon caught on to Reagan’s logic, as evidenced by how many Democrats defended the indefensible about Bill Clinton (They said that the Lewinsky matter was wrong and the Crime Bill may have been racially biased, but hey, the economy was damned strong, so live and let live!); which was followed by Republicans defending George W. Bush (They said that Bush 43 may have been mistaken [read–lied] about weapons of mass destruction, and we almost collapsed into a second Great Depression, but hey, Saddam needed to be defeated anyway and the market always corrects itself in time so the ends justified the means); which was followed by Democrats again being reticent to speak ill of the first Black POTUS (They said yes, the economy is stronger due to Barack Obama’s policies, and universal health care finally became a reality, so they said that they didn’t care about indiscriminate drone attacks that killed thousands of civilians in the Middle East or mass deportations of law-abiding, hard-working illegal workers AND if a Democrat, especially a black one, ever raised these or other not so good points about Brother Obama, said Democrat or black must be a “hater”); capped off by the nadir, Donald Trump, and his so-called “evangelical,” family values supporters who were faux puritans 20 years ago ready to hang a scarlet letter around Bill Clinton’s neck for the Lewinsky affair, but now look the other way for Trump (They say that we did not elect a saint or a pope, but that we elected a business man and lest we forget, God uses flawed men like King David and Donald Trump to perform his wonderful miracles for us to behold).
Sigh…It is enough to make me wanna holler and throw up my hands, like Marvin Gaye once sang.
This nation is led by national politicians who are so polarized that the aforementioned ball team-like support has them criticizing the other team when their own team members do far worse, like House Speaker Paul Ryan asking Rep. Maxine Waters to apologize for her comments encouraging her followers to protest Trump officials in public. This, despite Ryan never having asked his president to apologize for daily vitriolic insults and when on the campaign trail, encouraging his followers to beat the Hell out of hecklers. I may take issue with some of Waters’s positions, but is it remotely fair that she be pilloried when Trump is being praised or at a minimum tolerated for far worse words?
While frustrating, all that I can do is continue to encourage us all to do better in a nation that loves to boast of civility and greatness, far more than it has ever been truly civil.