An Opportunity for Civility
Barack Obama is, I think, a good and honorable man. Many (such as I) disagree with his policies, but he has steered clear of any personal scandals (so far), and ran a reasonably respectable campaign. Conservatives and Republicans disagree with Obama—but have no reason to be bitter or angry towards him.
So perhaps conservatives can use the advent of the Obama administration to attempt to lower the level of vitriol in our public debate. Broadly speaking, conservatives seem to think that liberals are stupid, while liberals are under the impression that most conservatives are evil.
Of course, neither notion is accurate—conservatives and liberals see the world in different ways. Conservatives tend to have a darker, more cynical view of a world in which good intentions rarely work out, well-meaning government programs cause only harm, and supporting peace quite often only leads to war. Liberals see a more friendly, utopian world, where if we all work together, we can accomplish great things.
In other words, liberals think that life is a sports movie (scrappy underdog overcomes the odds), while conservatives live in a Shakespearean tragedy (everybody dies, and we get only a glimpse of restored order).
Neither worldview is stupid, or evil (though one is wrong). And the level of anger, fear, and sometimes hatred in our public discourse is troubling. Fox News’ and MSNBC’s opinion shows exist only to mindlessly bash liberals and conservatives, respectively, with nuance and intelligence kept to a minimum. Talk radio has become, in large part, only a forum for Republican talking points. (Rush Limbaugh is an exception). The Internet is by far the worst—most of the political commentary found there (or here) combines nasty and stupid.
There’s no way that American politics will ever be wholly civil and well-mannered. Ever since Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a political spat, Democrats and Republicans (and Whigs) have never gotten along very well. And the present political polarization is mild compared to what we’ve seen in the past—after the Civil War, crafty Republicans basically disenfranchised the entire South, giving them a lasting majority for as long as they could get away with it.
But politics has also been a great deal more honorable and civil in the not-so-distant past. Richard Nixon idealistically decided not to challenge suspected voter fraud in after his 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy in order to preserve confidence in the American electoral system. In the postwar era, relations between the two parties were cordial enough that Dwight Eisenhower could consider running on either party’s ticket, and a soft-spoken man like Adlai Stevenson could get the Democratic nomination. It wasn’t a perfect time (McCarthyism was widespread too), but it was immeasurably more civil than ours.
I think that much of the anger in our political discourse can be traced back to the advent of the new media. Talk radio and cable gave alternate viewpoints the opportunity to be heard. That was good in many ways—it broke the liberal stranglehold on the media—but also bad, as it gave any moderately talented rabble-rouser an audience. And hate tends to escalate, meaning that political discourse in America has become more and more aggressive.
Conservatives should take advantage of Barack Obama’s seeming decency to try to reverse this trend. Bill Clinton actually deserved the names conservatives called him, and Hillary did too, or at least seemed to. But Obama is simply a liberal, and not mean-spirited or corrupt. Conservatives can oppose him without being hateful or bitter towards him.
This is not to suggest that conservatives are to blame for the political tone today—both sides share blame nearly equally. But the right has the ability to elevate political discourse in this country—and it should take it.
And had John McCain been elected president, he would have offered liberals a similar opportunity. He, too, is a good and honorable man. But he isn’t in the Oval Office, and Obama is.