This past Sunday, a panel of talking heads on Meet The Press had a discussion about incivility in American politics. Some interesting points were made, but the group’s focus was far too confined. The fact of the matter is that Americans from all walks of life are threatening each other daily and resorting to rhetoric that makes peace and comity elusive commodities.
American politics is an appropriate place to begin a general conversation about incivility. The “Daisy” TV ad in 1964 that effectively crushed Barry Goldwater’s bid to become president was the beginning of a long, and ever-worsening, line of attack ads that overwhelm voters each election cycle. They are the epitome of incivility.
The outrageous cost of attack TV ads by political campaigns is easily justified by the impact they have on a vulnerable electorate, as TV has become the primary source of information for Americans. It has become even more pervasive with the evolution of cable TV, which spews data and venom 24 hours a day. Fox and MSNBC, in particular, lead the political spin crowd. Nasty and highly opinionated comments slash and burn all those who disagree with commentators about their vision of America. Name-calling and unfounded accusations have poisoned the airwaves.
The latest horror story had Rush Limbaugh showering a law student with characterizations like “slut” and “prostitute,” because he disagreed with her perspectives about birth control. On the other hand, Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton, in the guise of “leaning forward,” viciously attack and mock conservatives with sarcasm and twisted facts. These celebrities are the enemy of civility. Yet, it is their constitutional right to say whatever they would like. Would censorship be a wise alternative? I think not. So, Americans are doomed to a continuing barrage of venom from these troublemakers.
In Congress, our lawmakers are unable to muster any civility even though the country’s security and financial viability are at stake. Debates have become name-calling catfights that morph into obstruction while our country pleads for cooperation and creativity. On several occasions, an inability to civilly discuss substantive issues almost brought our country to a standstill. Since the birth of our nation, comity and compromise ruled the day in Congress. But now, in 2012, the system has failed America.
Corporate and union relations have degraded to a sorry state. These parties share the responsibility for the sad state of affairs. Management, for many years, has coddled unions and given into outrageous demands that have effectively bankrupted many large companies as well as many state and local governments, all in the interest of avoiding strikes. This timidity enabled overly aggressive union leaders to negotiate bad arrangements that today have necessitated layoffs, which could have been avoided with civility and good will.
Special interest groups and their lobbyists have created an untenable atmosphere in America. Through unfair advertisement, funded by both corporations and unions, the dark side of every issue is foisted onto the American public. The power of TV ads almost always wins the day, and so, public perception of the targets wanes. This departure from the real issues has led to another form of incivility.
The gun ownership controversy is a classic example of a special interest gone wild. Compromise is just not an option for either side of this debate, as both fear the slippery slope effect. With civility, we would have already instituted common sense protections for our society. But, because of intransigency on both sides, America’s gun laws are effectively no different than they were 100 years ago.
The most egregious form of incivility, in my opinion, has taken place in the Oval Office. To gain political points, the president has initiated and perpetuated class warfare, in which the affluent have been isolated from the rest of society. Continually, Obama has inferred that the wealthy have not paid their “fair share.” This slogan will go down in history as one of the most unfair characterizations of a group of Americans.
The exact meaning of the comment is intentionally ambiguous as the president and his disciples never say the affluent are breaking the law — they are not, of course. This outrageous form of incivility and discrimination has had a dramatic impact on those that drive the economy; the response has been to draw back and become more wary, effectively prolonging the recession. Simple economics tell us that national prosperity cannot occur unless the affluent make it happen and ultimately share in it.
Our nation needs to reset itself. Unfortunately, the media and our government are the only two principal groups that can have an immediate impact on civility in the country. I am pessimistic they will cooperate because slander and scandal help both of these groups make hay. Therefore, only through the electoral process will Americans be able to fix the government side of this problem by electing representatives that act civilly.
Photo Credit: misteraxal