Issues Not Insults

On Wednesday evening, I stopped by a panel discussion on civility and respectability in politics. The theme of the night was: Can political aspirants treat each other better than they do now? Other important thematic questions of the night were: Are political attack advertisements now integral to campaigns? What are the ground rules? What is “fair play?”

The key to winning an election is realizing that we all have to live together after it’s over. The losers have to accept that they’ve lost.

These days, we have a lot of sore losers in politics. People who don’t know when to quit while they’re behind. They’re resilient and bitter and feel entitled, so when they lose an election, they just keep coming back into the foray at the next chance they get with more hostility, more disagreement than before. Yes, running for office is a competition, but this cycle of ruthlessness gives the endeavor more than one undesirable quality.

The news today reinforces our differences.

Gone are the Cronkite days when everyone in America would receive the same news from the same source. Today’s media universe has expanded exponentially. Now we have our choices of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, and various other outlets, local, national and global. How does this affect our ability to dialogue on the same page? It would seem information delivered in various contexts does contribute to political polarization in America, but what can be done about it? At one point during the discussion, Kathie Obradovich, a well-known journalist for The Des Moines Register, was put on the spot by the moderator, Michael Josephson. They seemed to disagree on the point that the media has a role in governing the civility of political dialogue. Wheras Obradovich did not believe it was the press’ responsibility to censor hate speech and/or uncivil rhetoric by a public figure, Josephson countered that the media played too big of a part in the political universe not to take some responsibility for covering candidates who are toxic. She had the last word, though, stating that (paraphase): “… As a reporter, I love to write about politicians who are unfiltered. As a citizen, I believe it is bad for our democracy. Nevertheless, I’m not the gatekeeper to information, I merely place things in context and let others decide.”

People who think political correctness is silly usually don’t feel demeaned.

During the panel discussion, I found myself thinking about whether the discussion itself was important. I wanted to poll the room and measure the ratio of those who self-identified as liberals, conservatives, and/or moderates. It seemed to me that this whole respectability issue really only bothers a certain set of people. In this age, respectability is purely subjective and, in a country where free speech reigns supreme, it is a challenge to determine what is uncivil as a public body. Ultimately, voters are the ones let candidates what is and isn’t okay, so by that logic, the reason men like Donald Trump have gotten away with such hateful and fear-inducing rhetoric thus far is because we have allowed it.

Brandi Dye, a panelist and also fellow contributor to Our Caucus, pointed out that we the people love the hype that comes from outrageous and eccentric candidate public figures. “We feed the monster” she said. I tend to agree. People are, of course, outraged by the sort of xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia “The Donald” exhibits, but not nearly enough. Liberals clutch their pearls and stand mouth agape at every new insult he issues, but as far as anyone can tell, the man is practically untouchable. Even when opposing candidates clapback, it sounds like they’re holding back. Governor Martin O’Malley’s favorite derogative is to call Mr. Trump an “immigrant bashing carnival-barker.” Seriously? What kind of insult is that? It hardly qualifies as a real insult. He always says it like it’s a thing, but don’t think anybody really knows what it means! If you’re going to (rightfully) attack someone’s character, ideologies and their behavior, why not have the stones to do it properly? I mean, The Donald’s not pulling punches, why should anyone else at this point? Donald J. Trump is a xenophobic and vacuous cretin. There, I said it. Oh, do those words not roll of the tongue well enough for a media sound bite? Then, he’s a bumbling buffoon and a magnificent moron. As far as the abandonment of civility in politics goes this election cycle, I wish those who have chosen to go negative would do so with more serious conviction than a ham sandwich. Donald Trump deserves no quarter. I say give ‘im hell, not a fire pit. OR don’t talk about him at all since any reference just gives him more air time. This applies to all candidates. But I digress.

What is the relationship between disdain for political correctness and incivility?

I believe that that a large part of what American exceptionalism is to many Americans is an inherent right to do whatever it is we want to do with impunity. It’s written clearly in the U.S. Constitution and is a privilege that only comes with being the most powerful democratic republic, with imperialist and colonialist tendencies, in the world. So, anyone who seeks to stifle this is branded as unpatriotic. Still, is no line drawn? One of the panelists, Dennis Goldford, implied in a very disturbing analogy that a gay person calling out a Christian evangelist for saying ‘being gay is an abomination’ is more uncivil than the evangelist himself because that Christian evangelist’s statement comes from “deep religious conviction.” It was probably the most absurd statement of the evening, but it highlighted to me a challenge with trying to manage and regulate, according to a universally accepted doctrine, what is and isn’t appropriate for people to say in a public space without backlash.

Political correctness can be used as a cover for protecting arguments and, rather than speaking on substantive topics, we argue on language.

Panelist Jessica Vanden Berg expressed at one point that “Our democracy is hurt by uncivil politics.” I tend to agree somewhat. Certainly, it doesn’t matter if a personal attack is true, but the way we deliver it does matter. It is not uncivil to disagree, but the way we disagree certainly matters. Dennis Goldford, annoyed by the discussion, jumped in: “I want people to focus on the facts and the way they differ rather than how they differ … People can be very honest but can do so with respect.” Of course, political science is academic, but politics is often times not very scholarly. It is very emotional and these days, nobody cares about a boorish politician, even if he is a good guy.

Issues not Insults.

Truly, I believe candidates who go extremely negative and still remain popular are not new phenomena. Insults or no, terrible statements are communicated clearly and only those who support them will follow the speaker, even if they don’t agree completely with how it’s delivered. The problem is, as citizens, we should expect some sort of discipline in our politics. It should not appear so to the point that it can be compared to a circus. Maybe that’s why lack of civility isn’t treated as seriously as it should: because nobody really respects politicians anyway. So, when an outsider like Trump comes in or an incumbent who wants to keep his or her seat starts churning out negative attack ads to lambaste, pillory and impale opponents, many people don’t have a problem with it because not only are expectations low, they didn’t have a lot of faith in the government anyways.

If there are two candidates who are diametrically opposed to each other on most of the issues, is it not prudent to make the differences clear in an honest manner? Is an ad negative if it is mostly subjective and focusing on illuminating the non-positive points of the opponent or are we going to designate buzzwords that define negative ads?

At the end of the panel, no clear consensus or solution was reached on how to combat and curb uncivil behavior in political campaigns and I believe there are several reasons for this and I will discuss a couple here. The first being that the panel discussion digressed too often, immensely at times. This is because they were discussing a topic so nuanced that it is difficult to stay on track. Second, not anything was clearly defined and then agreed upon. What is uncivil? How can we be respectable to one another whilst simultaneously disagreeing passionately enough to get media attention? Why is political correctness important? When should it be applied, if at all? Is civility really necessary or has uncivil behavior become the norm in politics? None of these were fully addressed and would take more than hour to truly broach.

The most important takeaway for me was a short story, rooted in semantics, told by one of the panelists to illuminate the shifting of perspective in American politics for those who seek elected office. The lesson from the story, and of the evening, was this: political candidates who are competing for an elected office need to define and see each other as opponents, not enemies.