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Politics in the Past: Was There Ever Really a Time of Civility?

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Many pundits and voters often tend to harken back to an era in which civility and chivalry ruled the day as far as politics were concerned.

I must say that this is a pleasant fantasy, but, then again, so is hitting the lottery and finding buried treasure in your backyard. In reality, no such period of time ever existed. As a matter of fact, according to the late, great Barbara Holland in her spellbinding Hail to the Chiefs, during the nineteenth century, candidates were frequently referred to by way of obscenities in campaign literature, and their mothers even accused of being prostitutes. Shockingly enough, all of this was merely the tip of the iceberg. Towards the beginning of the 1900s, the vitriol subsided quite a bit, though this only gave way to the operation of what we would now refer to as a smear campaign ; the sort of extensive character assassination plot too disgusting to take place atop the dinner table, so it goes on underneath instead and spreads like wildfire there.

Examples of this include, but are most certainly not limited to, some in the Republican party apparatus making outlandish innuendos about Democratic nominee Al Smith’s Roman Catholicism during the 1928 presidential campaign, and Lyndon B. Johnson ghoulishly attacking GOP standard-bearer Barry Goldwater’s unpopular hawkish stances on foreign policy matters nearly forty years later, despite harboring many of the same views himself. While a brief period of relative calm came about in the mid-1970s, tensions flared back up again in the early eighties due to the Reagan v. Carter spectacle, and then eased once more as the residual effects of Reaganomics cooled scores of previously hot heads. What happened immediately after this brings us into the modern era with headstrong force, so we will stop right here for now.

Just from simply looking at the facts, it is easy to deduce that the political process has always managed to bring out the absolute worst in people, as have other competitive entities, such as sports and gambling. That being said, the bad decisions made by individual athletes and gamblers do not affect the nation as a whole, while those of politicians do. Bright spots such as the bipartisan support garnered for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s measures against illegal immigration and Richard Nixon’s oil price controls provide us with a glimpse of how things might appear in an environment where propositions from the other side of the aisle are treated with intellectual curiosity as opposed to knee-jerk rejection, but, when all is said and done, all they are are glimpses, and what a tremendous shame that is.

It is hard to believe that what comes next makes all of this pale in comparison.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • zingzing

    “And you’ll never achieve civility by characterizing an entire movement with a caricature of some of its extremists.”

    well, it’s hard to say that the laws passed in arizona and georgia represents a caricature. it’s happening. the wall… wasn’t that seriously put forward by several republican representatives? i can see your point on the minutemen… they’re just rabid extremists.

    “The whole point of civility is that you don’t have to earn respect.”

    you wouldn’t if you hadn’t lost it. but you did. not you “you,” of course, but the loud element just to the right of you that’s getting closer and closer to mimicking the gestapo and soviets in berlin. funny how that happened…

  • Baronius

    Zing – The whole point of civility is that you don’t have to earn respect. And you’ll never achieve civility by characterizing an entire movement with a caricature of some of its extremists.

    Joseph – Doesn’t your latest article argue the exact opposite of this one? Either the current situation is unprecedented, or it’s usual. It can’t be both.

  • zingzing

    to be fair, “border control” has produced some pretty ridiculous shit from the right wing. between arizona (and georgia), the minutemen and proposing a 700-mile long berlin wall, if you want to be treated respectfully, you’ll have to earn it at this point.

  • Baronius

    Fair point, Cannon. Charles Krauthammer’s latest column dissects President Obama’s “civility”:

    The El Paso speech is notable not for breaking any new ground on immigration, but for perfectly illustrating Obama’s political style: the professorial, almost therapeutic, invitation to civil discourse, wrapped around the basest of rhetorical devices – charges of malice compounded with accusations of bad faith. “They’ll never be satisfied,” said Obama about border control. “And I understand that. That’s politics.”

    How understanding. The other side plays “politics,” Obama acts in the public interest. Their eyes are on poll numbers, political power, the next election; Obama’s rest fixedly on the little children.

    Once you confuse the center for civility, it’s very easy to accept the pretend-center as civil, even when the only claim to centrism the pretend-center makes is nastily attacking its opponents.

  • Cannonshop

    #6 any time it gets nasty, Baronius, the immediate media reaction is to attempt to marginalize to the extremes whoever (on the right) is not being nice. i.e. whenever you say something that isn’t nice, you immediately are re-categorized as an extremist in the public record.

    How in hell else could anyone accuse John McCain of being a “Conservative?”

  • Baronius

    Once again, Joseph, you confuse the political middle with civility. One may be civil on the political extremes, and one may be vicious in the political center. I’d love it if you’d just consider those possibilities in your writing.

  • Cannonshop

    #4 The real problem would be how often they staged fights just to pantomime and pander to the new base. Bad enough that some political speeches already look and sound like the rants from WWE, if you add in scripted fights (and they would be after a while) geez…

  • @ #3: LOL.

    Or Senate proceedings would be on the CW.

  • Cannonshop

    #2 C-SPAN would have better ratings than MTV?

  • Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I think that the general political climate has always proceeded in waves: periods of unrelenting partisan hostility followed by periods of relative civility and cooperation. Often it depends on whether the biggest perceived threats or problems are internal or external.

    If we perceive today’s politics as being acrimonious, let’s consider (and I’m surprised you didn’t mention this incident, Joseph) the case of South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, who one day in 1856 stormed into the Senate chamber, yanked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner out of his seat and proceeded to beat the crap out of him with a cane over something he’d said about his uncle. When other senators tried to come to Sumner’s aid, Brooks’s fellow SC Representative Laurence Keitt produced a pistol and warned them to back off.

    Not only were Brooks and Keitt not expelled from the House, Brooks was lauded as a hero in the South, and even had a city named after him.

    Can you imagine what the consequences would be if a modern-day congressperson pulled a stunt like that?

  • Cannonshop

    Another excellent Article, Mr. Cotto. I’ve been pointing this out for a while now, though my favourite example is a political cartoon from the early 1800’s of (iirc) Andrew Jackson, in military regalia, astride a hog, announcing “to the Victors goe the Spoils”. The accusation was tied to accusations of corruption in the way civil-service employment was distributed after a presidential election, not so very different from today’s various scandal-mongering discussions of corporate/political corruption, as well as slurs directed at the character of various sides in today’s debates.

    the periods of “civility” in our “civil” discourse have been rare, short-lived, and relatively unremarkable periods. Viciousness, slander, and factionalism are more the default setting than the exception.