The Myth of Civility

Remember Susan Smith?  Her name briefly resurfaced during the ritualistic pantomime known as “national soul-searching” provoked by the tragic events in Tucson.

To rehash: Susan Smith was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 for drowning her two children by rolling her car with them locked inside into a lake in South Carolina.  Newt Gingrich blamed liberalism for the horrific crime.  The Speaker-to-be cited a “counterculture,” dating to Johnson’s Great Society, for creating a “sick society” characterized by a “general acceptance of violence.”  He then added, “The only way you get change is to vote Republican.”

Gingrich’s penchant for bombast is old hat.  So is his shamelessness, which was on display when he counseled Sarah Palin in the wake of her ill-advised comments following the shooting in Arizona to “slow down and be more careful and think through what she’s saying and how’s she’s saying it.”  While Gingrich is yesterday’s news, his own comments following Susan Smith’s arrest reminds that civility in American political discourse is a chimera.  Vitriol is the norm.

Blame for the toxic climate is not evenly shared.  The right parcels out most of the poison: conservatives, it is said, go for the jugular, while liberals for the capillaries.  The right’s pit bull tenacity reflects its my-way-or-the-highway dogmatic tendencies, which are hard to reconcile in a democratic society where some degree of political compromise is necessary between those with conflicting worldviews.  Hence, the mudslinging.

We’re not talking about garden-variety mudslinging either.  The inability to brook dissent produces a vicious variety that calls into question the legitimacy of left-wing standard-bearers, however centrist they may be.  Obama is but the latest prominent Democrat to be deemed beyond the pale.  Many conservatives also never accepted President Clinton’s legitimacy; indeed, his eventual impeachment was merely the denouement of an ugly saga that predated his election to national office.  (Jerry Falwell even accused then-Governor Clinton of murder).

The chronicle of right-wing intolerance goes farther back.  Progressives in the fifties and sixties ran a gauntlet of charges, including having communist sympathies, which cast in doubt their patriotic bona fides.  Earlier still, Franklin Roosevelt withstood withering attacks from the likes of Father Charles Coughlin, the Glenn Beck of his day, who accused the president of being the tool of “international Jewish bankers.”

The right’s political idiom is now subtler, but its aim remains the same: to delegitimize the left.  Thus, “liberal” is turned into an epithet, while progressives are invariably accused of coastal elitism, or in John Kerry’s case, of “looking French” (a forerunner to claims of Obama’s foreign birth).  Sarah Palin’s invocation of “real America,” i.e., red states, and her observation that “[for] those on the left, if it wasn’t for their double standards, they’d have no standards” serves the same purpose.

Some would argue that politics, fundamentally, is about casting your opponent as extreme, and that those of all ideological persuasions, left and right, play the game.  True—to a point.  Liberals also demonize conservatives, sometimes with unmatched vigor (think Alan Grayson).  But while some on the left embrace smash-mouth politics, mainstream liberals rarely engage in a sustained and systematic assault on their ideological opponents that seeks to question their very legitimacy and thus their right to partake in the political process.  Skeptics of the claim are challenged to name the progressive equivalent to Fox News.

The events in Arizona were supposed to change all this.  Speaking in Tucson days after the shootings, President Obama remarked: “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”  It’s a nice sentiment.  But it won’t stick.

Mark DeMoss would agree.  DeMoss, a Republican and prominent evangelical Christian alarmed by today’s political rancor, sought to have congressmen and governors sign a simple three-line “civility pledge.”  He got just three takers.  “The worst e-mails I received [from lawmakers] about the civility project were from conservatives with just unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn’t use,” he said.  DeMoss promptly gave up.

We should also give up—give up our errant hopes for civility.  The left will never be legitimate to many on the right, and our politics will reflect that.  To put it starkly, ours is a national discourse mirroring that immediately following Susan Smith, not Gabrielle Giffords.

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