Political rhetoric in this country seems to have reached a new low. Why, look at the following statements, made by and about various political figures:
- “[Name removed] is a filthy, lying son of a b**ch, and a very dangerous man.”
- “When Judas betrayed Christ, his heart was not blacker than this scoundrel [name removed] in deceiving the Democracy. [...] He is an old bag of beef and I am going to Washington with a pitchfork and prod him in his old fat ribs.”
- “[Name removed] is so dumb he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. [...] He is a nice fellow, but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet.”
- “Old [name removed] stands lowest, I think, in the dirty catalog of treasonable mischief-makers.”
- “Naturally dull and stupid, extremely illiterate, indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him, pusillanimous, and of course, hypocritical, [name removed] has no opinion on any subject, and will always be under the government of the worst men [...].”
- “Reformers are the worst possible political advisers—upstarts, conceited, foolish, vain, without knowledge of measures, ignorant of men, shouting a shibboleth.”
Even the dead have not been left alone. This was said about a political figure who had been recently assassinated: “The cynical impudence with which the reformers have tried to manufacture an ideal statesman out of the late shady politician beats anything in novel-writing.”
One politician had a drink or two in very hot weather and gave a rambling speech as a result of it. Despite that this person was not a habitual drinker, let alone an alcoholic, the political cartoonists did not let up on that portrayal of him.
Another politician was overweight, and the man’s opponents, as well as the political media and cartoonists, never failed to make ad hominem references to this fact, despite how irrelevant it was to anything and how personally vicious it was.
Yet another politician had an unusual tilt to his neck. His opponents ignorantly and baselessly speculated that it was because he had attempted to hang himself.
However, the problem is not limited to ill-natured rhetoric against other people in politics. Politicians have developed such a sense of self-entitlement and power-lust that they have taken it upon themselves to threaten members of the media with assault. When one prominent politician’s daughter performed music in public and was panned by a critic, this politician publicly threatened to break the critic’s nose and blacken his eyes.
Speaking of assault, the House of Representatives itself has not been immune to threats, and indeed acts, of violence. A Congressman from the South beat up a Congressman from the North with his walking stick after the northern Congressman had insulted a Senator who was a close family member of the Southerner. And far from paying a huge political price for this, the Congressman, after resigning the office, ran again the next time and was re-elected!
That brings us to campaigns. The cynical, dishonest, muckraking tactics that have been used in political campaigns are nothing short of abominable. In one election, the Republican candidate failed to immediately condemn a speech by a preacher supporter that contained anti-Catholic references, and the Democratic Party accused the candidate himself of being anti-Catholic. In retaliation, the Republican Party leaked the information that their man’s opponent had an illegitimate child! The Republican candidate later referred to the bigoted supporter as “an ass in the shape of a preacher.”
In another campaign, the Democratic Party made fun of the Republican candidate’s slogan “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” by passing around the slogan, “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.”
And for many years, one party, in a cynical effort to distract voters from current problems, was liable to accuse the other of being unpatriotic and having supported treasonous activity in the past, even going so far as to bring out clothes owned by people who had been beaten within an inch of their lives by violent mobs and parade these articles on the campaign trail. Have they no shame?
In case you have not yet figured it out, every single one of these quotations and incidents occurred prior to 1980, and most of them occurred before 1920.
- The first quote was about Richard Nixon and was made in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, his opponent in the presidential election.
- The second was about Grover Cleveland and was made in 1894 by a state governor who was running for the U.S. Senate. He won his election.
- The third was about Gerald Ford and was made by Lyndon Johnson.
- The fourth was about James Buchanan and was made in 1861.
- The fifth was about James Monroe and was made in 1815.
- The sixth was made in 1883 by James Blaine, who was infamously corrupt.
- The seventh was about James Garfield and was made in 1881, less than half a year after his death.
- The politician who was ruthlessly slandered and libeled as a drunk after one misjudgment was Andrew Johnson (1865-1869).
- The overweight politician whose opponents never failed to mention it was William Howard Taft (1909-1913).
- The politician who was baselessly accused of having attempted suicide was James Buchanan.
- The politician who threatened the music critic with a beating was Harry Truman in 1950.
- The Congressman who beat up another Member of Congress held office before the Civil War, and the dispute was ultimately about the North-South tension.
- The political campaign involving the anti-Catholic speech was the presidential election of 1884.
- The political campaign where one presidential candidate was ridiculed as insane in a mocking political slogan was the 1964 election.
- The tactic of displaying bloodstained clothing on the campaign trail and blaming the other party for the violence was called “Waving the Bloody Shirt” and it was perpetrated in the late 19th century by the GOP.
This is merely a small selection of such incidents. The overriding point I want to make is that nasty personal attacks and gutter-level rhetoric are a long-standing tradition of American politics. So why is it that it seems so much worse today? Most people that you asked would probably still agree that politics today is more debased, uncivil, and barbaric even than these incidents were. This is a bit peculiar, but there are, as I see it, two possibilities for why this perception exists, and there’s probably some truth to each of them.
America Goes Soft?
Is the real problem that people (perhaps especially people in the media) cannot deal with anything in real life that isn’t bland, colorless, or vapid? One can take a good look at the political correctness movement, the self-esteem movement, and the empty-headed trash that passes for so much of our popular entertainment and suspect that this may be correct. This culture laps up outrageous levels of profanity, violence, and obscenity in entertainment without blinking a collective eye, and yet when a politician or party operative says or does something unusually crass, it is a major-league scandal. Many critics openly mock movies that do not titillate the lower aspects of human nature, but their friends in the news media clutch their pearls at the first sign of a street-level political taunt. That tends to suggest that people have become afraid of dealing with the dark side of human nature in those we perceive as authority figures, so it has been relegated to the world of fantasy, the traditional outlet for creating cultural archetypes. It’s safer in a country gone soft for leader-type characters in a movie to behave crassly than for actual social leaders to display these traits.
This Time, It’s Personal
However, I don’t think the “softening” theory explains everything. One important point to note is that the historical incidents I listed involved politicians, party operatives, and those who chose to involve themselves with them (such as members of the media). They did not involve regular people and their family and friends. That has changed. These days, you don’t have to be a member of a party committee to make a political statement that gets read far and wide. You don’t even have to depend on an editorial board to publish a letter that you wrote to the newspaper. All you have to have is a blog, Facebook account, Twitter page, or something similar.
There is an adage that “all politics is local.” Undoubtedly that used to be true, but I have my doubts that it actually applies anymore. If it does, then “local” isn’t what it used to be. These days, even local candidates for office are judged based on their party affiliation and are often tied, via that party affiliation, to an unpopular national political figure of the same party. The candidate’s individual views are often irrelevant in this situation. Outside money flows in for House and Senate races because particular contests could tip the scale in favor of one party or another. It has nothing to do with the local issues, which frequently get submerged in the national media narrative and fierce dogfight between the national parties and their associated issue groups.
Speaking of those single-issue groups, these outside organizations frequently decide that they are going to use a particular locality as a testing ground to promote their cause, so they haul their carpetbags into that area, set up shop, and commence the propaganda. Focusing (or, one might argue, fixating) on a single issue has the unfortunate tendency to promote one-sided thinking, emotionally-driven rhetoric, competing sets of “facts” (and the attendant conspiracy theories about how these different versions of the truth came to be), and plenty of encouragement of personal invective. A particularly ugly campaign of this nature just occurred in my home state. Outside organizations came into the state and started stirring up emotions and distributing literature about an issue that pre-existing local organizations could have advanced any time that they wanted, if that had been their goal. The issue became nationalized, with outside money being poured in, and this witches’ brew produced exactly what one would expect: soured relations and toxic discourse among the locals. I’ve heard of people calling those that they have known their whole lives “allied with Satan” and “child killers” and even worse. This campaign has left a sour taste in my mouth. An outside group can come into a region and sow division like this, then pack its bags and merrily go on its way, leaving metaphorical wreckage behind among the people that they cynically used for their “cause.” You think the national political machine cares? If so, I have some swampland for sale for you.
This polarizing emotional rhetoric at local scales to promote a national agenda is intimately linked with blogging and online activism because the latter make it so easy to do now. Indeed, if not for the nationalization (even globalization) of speech by anyone who has something to say—me included—then politics probably would still be local. This, I think, is the critical difference between the incivility of the past and the incivility of the present. In the past, the ugliness involved professional politicians, muckraking journalists, and journalists who chose to cover people associated with politics. Everyday discourse among regular people was civil, comparatively speaking. The very subject of politics was, in the past, regarded as somewhat low and definitely unsuitable for polite conversation unless they knew each other very, very well. People had their opinions, of course, but the divisive aspect of politics was just accepted as the basic nature of the beast. Politicians certainly weren’t regarded as modern messiahs for “the cause” (whatever that cause might be).They weren’t even necessarily regarded as the social leaders of the time. They were regarded as flawed human beings. It was okay for them to be flawed; it was accepted as a part of that aspect of life.
These days, it is everyday political discourse among regular people that is barbaric and debased. People in the pre-WWI era who made slimy gutter-level attacks upon the political points of view of their acquaintances would be labeled absolute boors, unfit to be around. Today, we attack each other without qualm. A simple disagreement in opinion is a sign that the other person is irredeemably evil or stupid or both, is not fit to associate with, and can safely be dehumanized in online rhetoric. We do apparently expect more out of our “leaders” and “authority figures” in politics, but this may well be a modern tendency to regard these people, as I said, as messiahs for a great national cause and thus superhuman. Some of the worst deeds in history were done in the name of a charismatic “leader” and a grand cause; these things seem to be really effective at making people see others as subhuman. I don’t know. But if I am at all on the right track with this, this is an extremely unhealthy and unnatural state of affairs, and it is long past time for it to stop. Unfortunately, since the Internet plays a part in its development and a lot of people actually seem to like turning into barbarians in their “debates” with each other, I fear that this is not going to happen any time soon.