The last few weeks haven’t been banner ones for political discourse in America. Representative Maxine Waters recently referred to Representatives John Boehner and Eric Cantor as “demons.” Slate’s Matt Yglesias, upon learning of the death of Andrew Breitbart, tweeted, “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBrietbart dead.” Matt Taibbi, who blogs for Rolling Stone, wrote, “Good! I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.” (That’s the least offensive part of what Taibbi wrote). New York magazine’s John Heilemann, co-author of Game Change and an MSNBC contributor, picked up on the spirit of things when on HBO’s “Real Time” he said, “This phrase, that people often say that we should not speak ill of the dead, right? I mean, when is a better time to speak ill of someone than when they’re dead?” This led to a fairly extraordinary moment, when Bill Maher (!), James Carville, and the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson had to explain to Heilemann that, among other things, there are the sensibilities of a grieving wife and four young children to take into account.
On the other side of the philosophical divide, columnist Cal Thomas, in referring to Rachel Maddow, said she “is the best argument in favor of her parents using contraception. I would be all for that and all the rest of the crowd at MSNBC too for that matter.” (Thomas called Maddow afterward to apologize and also wrote a gracious and honest column doing the same.) And earlier today Rush Limbaugh, having issued an apology on Saturday for calling Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” elaborated on that apology on his program, admitting the terms he used were wholly inappropriate and derogatory. (If Yglesias, Taibbi, and Heilemann have issued apologies for their comments, I’m not aware of them.)
What these things have in common, and what is an eternal temptation in politics, is to personalize political differences and in the process dehumanize – to grow to hate — those who hold views different than our own. There is nothing new in any of this; since the time of ancient Greece, politics has provoked strong feelings and bitter passions. What is new are the number of ways we can add poison to the bloodstream. In all of this I’m reminded of Lyndon Johnson’s speech following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, in which Johnson spoke about hatred and unreason in our midst. “Let us purge the hostility from our hearts and let us practice moderation with our tongues,” he told the nation.
This is easier to say than to do, as even LBJ, a man who harbored a considerable amount of hostility in his own heart for RFK (and vice versa), would have admitted. And too often people confuse civility with lack of conviction. It’s perfectly appropriate for political debate to be characterized by intensity and sharp clashes. And we shouldn’t treat political opponents as if they are porcelain dolls. But the ease with which the attacks move into the realm of the ad hominem – the kind of easy viciousness we find these days — is something to be concerned about.
There’s one other point worth making, which is that political differences between liberals and conservatives, while certainly significant, are often exaggerated in our current political culture. This insight comes courtesy of Ross Douthat, who points out that political antagonists today “still have far more in common than did most political antagonists in most previous eras.” One can of course find exceptions to this observation, but as a general matter Ross is onto something important. It helps place our current conflicts within a reasonable historical context.
I suspect that I’m among the last people to downplay the differences that do exist between those on the right and left. They’re real, meaningful, and have fairly significant human consequences. But in America today we’re (thankfully) not facing a Civil War- like situation — and even when we were, Lincoln was able to remind us we are not enemies but friends; and that while passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. That is, in the most fundamental sense, what it means to be fellow citizens.
Politics is mighty serious business. But everything has its place. There are things that go deeper even than politics. And for a complicated set of reasons, we tend to cast our differences in apocalyptic terms, as if every battle pits the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. For those of us who are part of the daily back and forth of politics, which seems to increase in velocity by the day, it’s worthwhile from time to time to recall that we are, in fact, friends rather than enemies; that political differences don’t make us sub-human or morally corrupt; and that taking joy in the death of others and using their passing to speak ill of them hurts everyone, including those who carry the hate in their heart.