By Mark Rhoads
As a former student of political science, office holder, and campaign volunteer, I have followed political debates for the last 50 years. But I have never seen a national political climate as poisonous and uncivil as the current one. I am not positive as to why this is the case but my suspicion is that the complete lack of adult supervision on some cable TV news/commentary departments combined with the anonymous nature of the internet are two of the villains that are driving the acceptance of acrimonious debate as the normal default operating system in America. It was not always this way, even in previous times of profound disagreements and high stakes debates.
In the first 20 years after World War II from 1945 to 1965, America had strong debates about civil rights, foreign policy, and the size and role of government. But in general the glue of common agreement that that held the country together was still stronger than the divisiveness of partisan or ideological stress. It was a time when both major parties shared a positive patriotic pride in the values and ideals of America and believed in its mission for good in the world. No one ever argued then that our system was perfect but only that is was superior to the inhumanity of totalitarian despotism.
In our domestic debates, the most important ingredient in the national glue was simple respect for the people who disagreed with us because they were our fellow citizens. No matter how strongly we disagreed on policy and ideas, we still were bound to respect our adversaries most of whom had paid the same dues for citizenship that all Americans had in the defense of the nation. Veterans and their service were greatly respected in the forums of both parties maybe because almost everyone knew someone who had served or a family who has lost a loved one in overseas battles.
The language of civil debate in those years might by today’s standards seem excessively polite to the point of being phony. But there was a reason for extreme respect and it was that even when we strongly disagreed on a policy we still respected the opinions of fellow citizens. In state legislatures and in Congress, it was not then common to hear lawmakers always attack the motives of those who disagreed simply because they did disagree. “I understand the concerns of the honorable representative from Cook, even while I do not share them.”. That might sound too polite or fake today. But it sure beats remarks to the effect that “Your party does not care about the welfare of children and the poor and that’s why you favor the rich at the expense of everyone else.” or “Your side of the aisle only knows how to tax and spend and enable corruption.” This kind of excessive partisanship undermines the chances for legitimate compromise that can sometimes ermerge from a process of give and take based on mutual respect. Respect for those who old opposing views does not mean that one has to throw away important principles or sacrifice them to expediency. But mutual respect does help to filter our the heavy background noise of super-heated partisan or factional rhetoric. It is possible to disagree without being obnoxiously disagreeable and democracy, more than other types of government, needs civil discourse based on real respect.
Copyright © 2011 Mark Rhoads. Published in Illinois Review, June 11, 2011