Saturday, October 10, 2009

Civility in American politics

As if in response to a conversation I had yesterday with my dad and this post, the Washington Post has an article on civility in American politics, then and now:

"There are enough good people who believe in the flag and the Bible to seize and control the Government of America! . . . We must make our choice in the presence of atheistic Communistic influences! It is Tammany or Independence Hall! It is the Russian primer or the Holy Bible! It is the Red Flag or the Stars and Stripes! It is Lenin or Lincoln -- Stalin or Jefferson!"

That rousing call to action against a president could be stripped straight from the Web sites of today's Tea Party protesters, and it brought lusty cheers from 10,000 Americans outraged over what they perceived as invasive federal power.

It was the summer of 1936, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seeking his second term as president. He already had closed the banks in an effort to pry the country out of the Depression and established the sweeping safety net of the New Deal. Gerald L.K. Smith, the minister who delivered that jeremiad at a third-party convention in Cleveland, was merely a warm-up act for the invective to come from the Rev. Charles Edward Coughlin. An early Roosevelt supporter, Coughlin turned on the president and depicted him as a tool of the devil in weekly radio addresses that reached 40 million people. Still, Roosevelt won by a landslide.

"From time to time, I go back to find the golden age of civility," said Michael Barone, lead author of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics, "and it has proved elusive." He cites Coughlin. He cites fistfights over policy at the mid-century Georgetown dinner parties so often lauded for their bipartisan bonhomie. "I'm not sure we are in a greater era of incivility."

A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams "a hideously hermaphroditical character." Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr "bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country," an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.

Go through the nation's history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval -- illustrated in recent decades by the contentious judicial confirmation fights. Conservatives say those fights began with the Democratic-led verbal savaging of Supreme Court nominee Robert J. Bork in 1987.

The spread of the Internet in the mid-1990s, along with the rise of conservative talk radio and 24-hour cable news programming, added a new dimension, however.

"The thing that is really important now is the way the Internet has changed the relationship between the elite and the non-elite. Everybody has the opportunity to be a great communicator for 15 minutes," said Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study who studies modern political theory....

"Completely false allegations incubate in the fringe and jump within days to the mainstream, distorting any debate or progress we can have as a society," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which released a report last month noting a rise in the "militia movement" over the past year. "What's different is that a great deal of this is real fear and frustration at very real demographic and cultural changes."

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