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The Politics of Incivility

- Abstract

“Bush Lied, People Died,” said the post-Iraq bumper sticker. “You lie!” shouted Rep. Joe Wilson at President Obama during a 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress. The two examples constitute, respectively, Exhibit A for the GOP lament of the decline of civility in American life and Exhibit A for the same lament from the Democratic side.

Despite what you have been hearing lately, incivility is nothing new in American politics. As Daniel M. Shea and Morris P. Fiorina note in their new edited volume Can We Talk? The Rise of Rude, Nasty, Stubborn Politics, incivility has a long pedigree in American political discourse. Consider the warning the Connecticut Courant issued about the consequences of a Thomas Jefferson victory in the presidential election of 1800: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced….The soil will be soaked with blood.” Or the taunt in 1884 arising from allegations that Grover Cleveland had had an affair with a young widow and fathered an illegitimate child: “Ma, Ma, where is Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!”

About the Author

Tod Lindberg, editor of Policy Review, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of its task force on the Virtues of a Free Society. This article is based on remarks he gave in April at the Asan Plenum in Seoul, South Korea.