The myth of civility in American politics.
The folks at Brietbart.com are advertising a new online magazine by putting up posters around LA. They include one of Nancy Pelosi’s face photo-shopped onto Miley Cyrus doing her tongue-lolling twerk, and another of Mark Zuckerberg adorned with women’s breasts. We can pass over the usual left-wing suspects indulging their hypocrisy with squeaks of “misogynist” and “sexist tropes.” Nothing but progressive crickets have greeted the much more vicious assaults on Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin. More interesting is the reaction of some conservatives, one that suggests why Republicans lose elections.
Over at NRO Jim Geraghty gives a reasoned argument for maintaining civility: “But when do efforts to expose the Left's double standard reach the point where the Right doesn't have a standard? At some point we’re going to have to decide what we want: a political culture in which Sarah Palin . . . can be depicted in sexist, humiliating and derogatory ways, as well as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary and anyone else, or one in which that's considered out of bounds. We can’t say it’s only wrong when they do it.” But is the “political culture” we want one that maintains decorum or wins races? Isn’t it rather the one that endorses the philosophy of Oakland Raiders owner-coach Al Davis––“Just win, baby”?
In any case, civility has always been the exception rather than the norm in democratic politics, and those who worry over decorum in political speech don’t understand democracy. The political history of ancient Athenian democracy shows that once a political culture exists that gives a wide variety of people and interests the right to speak publicly, civility ends up being the first casualty. Democratic speech in Athens was rough, vulgar, and insulting, often at a level far beyond beyond what we today consider acceptable. Politicians were slandered and vilified publicly by name, on stage in comedy, in public speeches in the courts, and in the assembly and council, the equivalent of our Congress. Taking bribes, incest, sordid sexual behavior, and homosexual prostitution were favorite charges. As classicist K.J. Dover writes about comedy, “There is not one [politician] who is not attacked and ridiculed,” and “all these leading men, and many minor politicians besides, are uniformly treated by the comic poets as vain, greedy, dishonest and self-seeking,” and accused of being “ugly, diseased, prostituted perverts, the sons of whores by foreigners who bribed their way into citizenship.”
Nor was early American democratic debate conducted with the powdered wig and silk knee-breeches civility of our idealizations. After George Washington’s first term, the gloves came off. Federalists described the rising Democratic-Republican party as “that horrible sink of treason,––that hateful synagogue of anarchy,––that odious conclave of tumult . . . that hellish school of rebellion and opposition to all regular and well-balanced authority.” The charge that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings started life as a political smear. Later, Abraham Lincoln was called the “missing link” and the “original gorilla.” The New York Times’ Paris correspondent called for an embargo on portraits of Lincoln, for “the person represented in these pictures looks so much like a man condemned to the gallows, that large numbers of them have been imposed on the people here by the shopkeepers as Dumollard, the famous murderer of servant girls, lately guillotined near Lyons. Such a face is enough to ruin the best of causes.” And the Times was a supporter of Lincoln. Then there were the jingles about Warren G. Harding’s illegitimate daughter, caricatures of “Tricky Dick” Nixon as a used-car salesman, endless insults of Ronald Reagan as an amiable dunce, and a pathological hatred of George W. Bush that included everything from disparaging his intelligence to fantasizing about his assassination. American political speech has always used invective, personal attacks, and vulgar insult in disputes with opponents. In comparison, the Brietbart posters are actually quite tame, and clever to boot.
This hand wringing over civility, moreover, can have political costs if it encourages ceding the initiative to the opponent. John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s gentlemanly restraint in their contests with the Chicago political thuggery of the Obama team didn’t seem to change any votes or win any points for decorum and class. Nor have the lies and personal attacks employed by the Democrats kept them from winning. In politics as in football, playing prevent-defense is a good way to lose. And now we have Jeb Bush’s name bruited as a possible 2016 Republican candidate, a respected, classy moderate who said recently, “Can a candidate run with a hopeful, optimistic message, hopefully with enough detail to give people a sense that it’s not just words, and not get thrown, not get back into the vortex of the mudfight?” The answer is no, he can’t. He has to have a coherent, principled program for which he is willing to get in the mud and fight. If not, the Republicans will have another Pyrrhic victory in which they get the prize for classiest loser.
The 2016 presidential election will be critical for addressing the debt, deficits, slow growth, bloated government, job-killing regulations, and general statist lunacy engineered by the Democrats. The Republicans will have to play to win, not play for the “best sportsmanship” award. They can’t hold back against likely candidate Hilary Clinton out of some fear of being branded “sexist” and conducting a “war on women.” That is going to happen no matter what Republicans do, because that’s who the left are these days: intolerant cultists convinced of their righteousness and the carte blanche it bestows on them. And Republicans can’t worry that there exists millions of swing voters who agree with Republican principles and policies but find their tone objectionable. There likely will be many more who are glad to see them discard the preemptive cringe and fight back, as long as it's clear what they stand for.
In the end politics is about winning, and just as in any fight, rules of engagement only work when both sides honor them. The “political culture” America needs is the one in which conservatives win. And if they’re going to lose, then to quote the Sopranos’ Chrissy Moltisanti, 2016 should be “Scarface, final scene, bazookas under each arm, ‘say hello to my little friend!’”
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