The myth of political civility


The two statements below are equally true:

1. The Left’s Trump Derangement Syndrome, from screaming at the sky to the now routine comparisons with Nazi Germany, seems particularly hysterical and unhinged compared to the past instances of political outrage.

2. The allegedly and sadly now lost golden age of political civility is largely a myth.

When that golden age of mature debate and gentlemanly disagreements might have existed is never quite apparent. To those with short memories, the election of Donald Trump is a watershed; the end of political innocence. And while the current state of debate does indeed seem especially extreme and bizarre by any standards, it’s neither new nor unusual. Republicans like Mitt Romney and John McCain, now seen by the left as mavericks and all-around decent if somewhat misguided figures (they are still Republicans, after all) have weathered their own batterings when they respectively ran against Obama. Romney was portrayed as a sexist and racist religious bigot; McCain has had his war record ridiculed, was painted as a Bush stooge and an associate of criminals. George W Bush was an idiot and an international embarrassment, Christian extremist, coward, war criminal, Bushitler and a chimp. Ronald Reagan similarly was a buffoon and an ignoramus, B-grade actor, political extremist and a threat to international peace and humanity’s survival. And let’s not even start on Richard Nixon.

This is not a partisan thing. Obama was widely seen on the right as a Kenyan-born Muslim, crypto-communist and an Islamist sympathiser, if not actually the Anti-Christ. Bill Clinton was a corrupt rapist, implicated in drug-running and a string of suspicious deaths. The attacks on Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy were as extensive as they were vicious, and are mostly forgotten today by all but a few history buffs. I’m not arguing about the accuracy and the merit of various accusations and characterisations, merely pointing out the vehemence of the abuse and the extremism of the language used.

And if you think that maybe you can find that lost civility further back in time in political history, you might also be disappointed. “Harper’s Weekly” no less had called Abraham Lincoln a “Filthy Story Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Filed-Butcher, Land-Pirate”. Yes, the Civil War of course was a period of particularly high tension, but again, it was not that exceptional. Thomas Paine had called George Washington a “treacherous… hypocrite”, Alexander Hamilton called Thomas Jefferson “repulsive” and said “he brought his own children to the hammer and made money of his debaucheries”. Henry Clay said that Andrew Jackson is “ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt and easily swayed by the basest men who surround him” and Jackson reciprocated by calling Clay “the basest, meanest scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of God”. William Cobbett called Benjamin Franklin a “crafty and lecherous old hypocrite”. “The Nation” described Ulysses Grant as “an ignorant soldier, coarse in his taste and blunt in his perceptions, fond of money and material enjoyment and of low company.” Grover Cleveland. in turn, was hounded over fathering a bastard. You get the picture.

For most of the American history since the colonial times, newspapers, which until the advent of the electronic media, have been the major source of news and debate, have traditionally been openly partisan. In many cases, newspapers were specifically set up to be the mouthpieces and megaphones for a faction or a party (there were Federalist newspapers, Whig newspapers, Democrat newspapers, Republican newspapers, Populist newspapers); in most other instances, the owners never had any compunction against using their papers to express and support their own political beliefs and agendas. “Objective” journalism is a relatively new historical development; and it works much better in theory than in practice.

Politics, like all pursuit of power, has always been a vicious high-stakes game. Whether it’s a matter of life and death or of not much at all, it can bring both the best and the worst out of people (most of those who have been involved in student politics, for example, will agree that the less at stake the more vicious it gets). Let’s not forget how often during our modern history people have been killing each other over political differences. They rarely do so anymore (thankfully) but the emotions that once drove them to go to war, or duel, or assassinate are still exactly the same today as they were then. All things considered, screaming obscenities at each other, however inelegant, seems to be pretty safe alternative.

So why is that we tend to think that the present (whether it’s the 1968 present, or the 1984, or indeed the 2018 one) marks a fall from grace and an exile from the Eden of political civility, calm and good manners? I blame the internet and the social media in particular – not for bringing the standard down but to fully revealing how low it has generally always been. In the past, only a small number of people would have the public platforms and outlets to express their views and opinions, including extreme and unpopular ones. The communications revolution has democratised political speech. Whereas in the past only families, friends and people at a local bar would be exposed to Average Joe’s and Joanne’s views, now everyone with an internet connection can be a pundit and an agitator, heard by everyone else. Like the proverbial radio waves, our outbursts, insults, threats and curses bounce around the ether, endlessly reflected and often amplified thanks to the power of networks and social media sharing. The mainstream media, competing against so many other outlets, and in a perpetual obsessive search for content, mines for controversy and contributes to the echo chamber of horrors.

Trump might be particularly skillful at driving his opponents to fits of rage and madness, but we have been screaming at each other for a long time and will very likely scream for as long as we hold strong and conflicting views on issues around us. Or until an asteroid wipes out humanity.