Friday, January 28, 2011

I'm rubber, you're stupid: Why American politics isn't getting meaner


I'll come right out and say it: the people espousing "civility" in American politics are idiots.

American politics has never been civil. It was, in fact, designed to be adversarial. The system works better when both sides are eyeing each other over a trench filled with the bodies of ideological victims. As such, the United States government—particularly the legislative branch—has a rich and enviable history of political vitriol.

My personal favorite example is one Preston Brooks, a Senator from South Carolina during the 1850s. He made headlines when, following a speech by his colleague, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, he hunted Sumner down and beat him with a gutta-percha cane—not until Sumner was slipping in his own blood, not until Sumner had crawled up the Senate aisle and fallen unconscious, but until the cane broke.

The topic of Sumner's speech? Slavery—specifically, his support for its abolition. It sounds fairly extreme, until you dig further into the story and find out that Sumner had in fact singled out one of Brooks' cousins in his speech and made mention of a physical deformity. In other words, Brooks likely saw himself as defending his family's honor more than the institution of slavery.

Melendez, Florida, saw things differently. This sleepy Southern town heard what had happened and the following year, to express the town's admiration for Brooks and his abolitionist-beating cane, its residents voted to rename the town to "Brooksville."

The name Brooksville persists today, and I grew up fifteen minutes outside the city limits.

Striking a balance between competing self-interests

Going back even further, of course, dictates some understanding of the birth of our nation.

According to Lane & Oreskes' Genius of America, the Articles of Confederationthe United States' original constitutionwas a dismal failure barely a decade after the acknowledged end of the Revolution. The problem, thought the great minds of the day, was that the Articles assumed too much on the part of the nation; each state was very nearly a sovereign nation of its own, unified only by a very weak federal government that was powerless to prevent any state from doing whatever it liked.

Taxation was one of the most vexing problems. The federal government had no power to impose taxes on the states; instead, in order to pay off war debts, it had to rely on the states' willingness to throw some money into the pot. This, thought the Articles' framers, would be okay, because, of course, we are a nation chock-full of "public virtue"we'd all look out for the good of society over our own interests.

But this is America, so of course that didn't happen.

So the A of C had to be tossed and replaced with a new Constitution. To this end, a Convention was called in Philadelphia in the late spring of 1787 with delegates from the various American statesalmost. A state or two (who shall remain unnamed) refused to attend, while others simply couldn't make it right away, thanks to the difficulties of traveling in the 18th Century.

In many ways, the Constitutional Convention was a microcosm of the problems facing the Articles of Confederation; smaller states demanded equal representation, while larger states demanded proportional representation. In the middle of it all lay the question: How do we create a system that both harnesses and frustrates the natural impulse to serve oneself a heaping spoonful of advantage?

The answer, after three long months of argument, dissension, shifting alliances, andyesmuch vitriol, was the current system of checks and balances among three branches of government. In fact, the current legislative branch is itself the result of a compromise that was reached after some nasty fights; instead of a unicameral body that was equally- or proportionally-represented, they wound up splitting the difference.

That's why we have the Housewhich relies on proportional representationand the Senatewhich is equally-apportionedand all the ancillary consequences, such as the need for a decennial census and the later Three-Fifths Compromise to equalize the South's disadvantage in population (remember, only white males were considered citizens with voting rights, and in the South, enslaved blacks outnumbered free whites).

In general, the entire federal government was designed to force legislators, justices, and executives to experience eternal frustration. If Congress enacted an act, the President could veto it until something better came along. If the President passed a law, the Supreme Court could strike it down. Then the legislature could try again.

...the entire federal government was designed to force legislators, justices, and executives to experience eternal frustration. If Congress enacted an act, the President could veto it until something better came along. If the President passed a law, the Supreme Court could strike it down. Then the legislature could try again.

Procedural rules in Congress virtually guaranteed adversarial relationships among the participating parties. Majority and supermajority rules ensured that alliances needed to be formed, compromises hammered out, and win-win situations sought. One Senator's mutual back-scratcher one week could be his side's thorn the next.

Established precedent

Political vitriol is not surprising in a system that appears to have been constructed specifically to engender it. Our government runs on the principle that people with differing interests will pull in different directions, until circumstances finally force them to pick one and lurch that way.

The record extends all the way back. We can almost count by the decade.
  • 2000severy election cycle, plus Iraq, "enhanced interrogations," and Barney Frank in general, to say nothing of the 2008 near-collapse, with the possible exception of the fall of 2001.
  • 1990sCigars, interns, government shutdowns, and chauvinistically-intimidating first ladies.
  • 1980s"potatoe" (though that one bridged 1990) and "voodoo economics"and let's not forget the economic crash that happened in that decade, nor Nicaragua, nor Reagan's shot at Mondale's "youth and inexperience" in 1984.
  • 1970sMcGovern as an egghead and Agnew as a criminal. And Nixon is worth another two or three decades of mean right there.
  • 1960s ...
I don't know if I really need to go on. Twenty-two decades have passed since the Constitution was written, and they all have their own exemplars of crazy talk.

This is true even in the 1870s, which was marked by a shift toward propriety and gentility in American societygiven the big old civil war that had occupied the first half of the last decadethere were still active pundits like Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist who, according to Jarman (2010), was a "firebrand" who thought that civility turned political speech into something "timid and conformist." This led to conflict with his editor at Harper's Weekly, who thought Nast needed to tone things downonly to be depicted in a Republican magazine as an organ grinder with Nast as his listless trained monkey, as both were told to pipe down by an officious Uncle Sam in front of the Capitol.

A new politics of pity?

I have a two-pronged pet theory about the seeming increase in nastiness in politics.

The first prongand this is supported by Toward a rhetoric of insult by Thomas Conley (2010)is that politicians have learned to find something, anything, in a statement by the opposing party that could be spun as insulting, then cry victim and call for civility. So things may not be nastier; our politicians and pundits have merely seen the value in being crybabies.

So things may not be nastier; our politicians and pundits have merely seen the value in being crybabies.

This leads to confusing situations like an encounter between Sen. Jim Webb and then-President George W. Bush, in which Bush inquired after the welfare of Webb's son, who was serving in Iraq at the time.

Webb's response was that he'd "like to get them out of Iraq ... " Disconcerted by the seeming non sequitur, the President said, "That's not what I asked you. How's your boy?" Webb's last, icy word on the subject was, "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President."

Predictably, conservatives were outragedhow dare the good Senator from Virginia be so rude to the President! Liberals were equally as outragedhow dare the President of the United States, the man whose own actions made it necessary to inquire after the young man's well-being in the first place, be so insensitive (see the very biased "encounter" link above)?

So, really, who's the bad guy here? It's kind of hard to tell, isn't it?

In general, it almost seems to be a peculiarly perverted version of Hanna Arendt's politics of pity, on a small, insanely-individualistic scalethe suffering of those so maligned needs to be eased, regardless of whether or not their so-called misery is justified. It's an interesting shift away from the politics of justice, which Arendt thought was embodied in the American Revolution (as opposed to the French Revolutionread On revolution, it's interesting). This, I think, is probably the most cynical motivation possible behind any calls for civility.

A dendrochronology of insult

The other prong of my theory about the perceived rise in political vitriol, a prong that's not very well-backed-up because I think it's kind of obvious, is that it's just more visible. Sites like the Daily Kos and the Drudge Report, to say nothing of pillars like the Free Republic and one-offs like (well-known for such enlightening posts like "Barack Obama takes up smoking (again)") air out fringe opinions on a constant basis. Heck, Glenn Beck's show amounts to a one-hour hate every day, right?

Sure. But if you actually steel yourself and go to his Web site and check out the summaries of his recent shows, you see things like:

"What do the tree rings mean?"

"Why did Glenn bring a bunny and a chainsaw to the set?"

"Does the New York Times care about threats that are directed at Glenn?"

Reading through these summaries, I can't help but feel that his show is more idiotic than hate-filled. I don't know if the Gray Lady cares, but why are you worried about that? It brings to mind his famous blackboard and his attempt to prove that Barack Obama's main goal was to institute an "OLIGARHY."

However, another recent summary of a Beck episodeand this is a surprising consanguinitygoes: "How different was political speech in the past compared to now? It has [sic] was a lot more heated during the time of the Founders."

Oh dear. I may actually agree with Glenn Beck.

Before I evaporate in a puff of shame scented with John Boehner's tears, I'd like to leave you with one last thought: Respect and civility in political discourse is also the enemy of free speech.

As Kamm (2007) argues in the Index on censorship, "The voice of moderation, civility, and balance is ... politically toxic. It makes the false assumption that having regard to the feelings of othersa virtue in personal affairsis any concern of public policy."

Arendt, H. (1963). On revolution. New York: Viking Press.
Conley, T. (2010). Toward a rhetoric of insult. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jarman, B. (2010). The graphic art of Thomas Nast: Politics and propriety in postbellum publishing. American Periodicals, 20(2), 156-189.
Kamm, O. (2007). The tyranny of moderation. Index on censorship, 36(2), 82-86.
Lane, E. & Oreskes, M. (2007). The genius of America: How the Constitution saved our country -- and why it can again. New York: Bloomsbury.

Jim McCarthy is a deaf graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of South Florida and is currently a student in the School of Life and Human Folly (SLHF).

1 comment:

  1. Only in America can Daily Kos be considered "fringe."

    In the political spectrum of the world, those posting on Daily Kos fall firmly in the center.