Is our political speech really more bitter and poisonous than it’s ever been?
No, though it’s certainly more debased and lacerating than it was just a few short years ago. We’ve been through eras of bitterly expressed politics more often than we’d probably care to admit. The Federalists and anti-Federalists bickered ferociously. Contention over the Bank of the United States during the Jacksonian era was fierce. The political rhetoric leading up to the Civil War was murderous. Franklin Roosevelt’s policies were the target of vile opposition. And during the McCarthy period, intolerance abounded.
If there’s a major difference between these other periods in which political expression was an ugly business and ours, it probably lies in the technology of speech. We live in an era saturated with communication of all sorts, and this has both radically democratized political speech and opinion and deprived it of any restraint or standard of responsibility.
Because we’re literally bathed in politicized speech, which is different than political speech, when rhetoric turns ugly, it seems as if it is all around us because in some sense it is. In former eras we were buffered by constraints of time and distance, which new media have erased.
The Internet has been a great enabler of incivility, not only because it so easily allows the anonymous or pseudonymous expression of the most violent or hurtful opinions but because it reinforces the illusion of a virtual world in which there is nothing but speech. Anyone with a laptop or a smart phone can engage in endless wrangling with the political figures they know only as broadcast images flickering across the video screen. In such an environment, there is no need for the restraint or civility that is an essential part of dealing with flesh-and-blood people or the actual consequences of a real world.
Beyond the influence of technological change looms a substantive political uncertainty. Over the last quarter of a century, our politics have divided most contentiously over the so-called values issues — abortion, gay rights and same-sex marriage, for example. Though politics and values obviously intersect, the languages they speak are distinctly, and necessarily, different: Values do not admit compromise; politics, which is the prudent application of values in pursuit of the common good, requires compromise.
Some of what we’re experiencing today as bitter political rhetoric may reflect the leaching of the values debate into the generality of our political life.
The problem with politics in which every question and situation is framed as a matter of fundamental values is that it makes compromise impossible. There simply isn’t any way to meet the other side even halfway without in, some fashion, ceasing to be yourself. The last time Americans worked themselves into that sort of blood-drenched dead end was during the period leading up to the Civil War.
It’s important to recall that the way out of that deadly impasse was found not only in force of arms but in the ennobling and balanced wisdom of Abraham Lincoln’s political rhetoric. And let’s remember that the 1960s, when the country was racked by bitter divisions over war and civil rights and by far more violence than we now experience, also produced some of the wisest and most humane political speech in our history.
Tom Hayden recently reminded me of this memorable passage from one of the speeches Bobby Kennedy gave in the hotly contested 1968 presidential primary campaign: “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
Much would be accomplished if all who assume the responsibility that ought to accompany the impulse to speak publicly would keep the examples of Lincoln and Kennedy in mind, recalling that there is no necessary connection between bitter political rhetoric and hard and dangerous times.