My former White House colleague Michael Gerson has a very good column in the Washington Post today on civility and public discourse. It makes a very important (and too often overlooked) point:
The most basic test of democracy is not what people do when they win; it is what people do when they lose. Citizens bring their deepest passions to a public debate — convictions they regard as morally self-evident. Yet a war goes on. Abortion remains legal. A feared health-reform law passes. Democracy means the possibility of failure. While no democratic judgment is final — and citizens should continue to work to advance their ideals — respecting the temporary outcome of a democratic process is the definition of political maturity.
The opposite — questioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome; abusing, demeaning and attempting to silence one’s opponents — is a sign of democratic decline. From the late Roman republic to Weimar Germany, these attitudes have been the prelude to thuggery. Thugs can come with clubs, with bullhorns, with Internet access.
Spirited, passionate debate is fine, and even good at times, for the country. The opposition party should offer sharp, even piercing, criticisms when appropriate. After all, politics ain’t beanbags, as Mr. Dooley said. And it’s not the place for those with delicate sensibilities. But nor should it be an arena for invective or hate. And conservatives should not repeat the tactics used by some Democrats and liberals during the Bush years. (Gerson documents several of them, including the temper tantrum thrown by the New Republic writer Jonathan Chait.)
These are not people or temperaments we want to emulate. It’s not appropriate – and it is ultimately politically counterproductive. Ronald Reagan, himself, a large-spirited and civilized man, looked quite good compared to the vitriolic attacks directed against him at the time.
Thankfully, anger and hate don’t usually sell in American politics. Richard Nixon, in the aftermath of Watergate, understood that. “Never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” Nixon said during his haunting remarks to the White House staff after his resignation in 1974. That was a lesson Nixon learned only after he was destroyed. It is a cautionary tale.