Americans growing political incivility threatens America’s democracy
WASHINGTON: Our political life is in growing disarray. The insults which are heard on an almost daily basis erode public confidence in our government and in our public life. We seem unable to disagree without being disagreeable. Those on both the left and the right are guilty of demonizing those of a different point of view. This Incivility led to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and to the unwillingness of many to accept the results of what was a free and fair election.
At the same time, some on the left tell us, as they did on July 4, that our society is not worthy of celebration because the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were, as we all are, imperfect human beings.
There was a time, not that long ago when Americans shared the same information.
Most people received their news from local newspapers and the three national television networks, NBC, ABC, and CBS. Now people are busy with cable news channels and Internet websites that filter the news through various ideological perspectives. People on the right get one set of alleged “facts,” and people on the left get another. There is no common understanding of reality. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said many years ago, everyone has the right to his or her own opinion, but not to their own “facts.”
The coronavirus, for example, is now raging in areas where people are unvaccinated largely because people who are addicted to “news” sources which, for reasons that have nothing to do with science, warn against the vaccine.
How many people will die needlessly as new variants of the disease spread? I remember when the polio vaccine arrived. With no internet or cable television, there was no campaign to keep polio alive.
In his book “A Time of Love And Tartan,” the novelist Alexander McCall Smith, a former law professor, has one of his characters make this point:
“Oh, I know that we shouldn’t romanticize the past, and I don’t…But there are times when it seems that the social glue that holds people together is weakened and, well, brother is turned against brother, so to speak…Friendships have been broken, families sundered because of the polarization that has taken place. Who can be happy about that? I can’t…There’s something very unpleasant on the loose. We may pretend that it isn’t; we may deny it, but we know that there are more and more people who hate those whom they used not to hate. And there are even those who encourage this hate, who harbor that hate within themselves, and are happy to see it flourish in the breasts of others.”
I remember a very different kind of American politics.
During the Vietnam War, I worked in the U.S. Senate. Part of my responsibility was to engage in debates with critics of the war. Among those with whom I debated were Professor Howard Zinn and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, then chaplain at Yale. While we disagreed strongly, there was never any personal rancor.
My various opponents and I often went out for a drink after the debate and continued the discussion. Each of us was trying to convince the other of the merits of our position. Now, in retrospect, I think my opponents were correct on a number of important points. The Vietnam War may have been the wrong war at the wrong time for our country.
Those who engage in political life should be prepared to admit they were wrong when this clearly becomes the case. Sadly, many are not.
When the issues were far more divisive than any we face today, civility was widespread.
Later I worked in the U.S. House of Representatives as Assistant to the Research Director of the House Republican Conference. Part of our job was to prepare legislation to be introduced. Among the members of this committee were Reps. George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, both of whom later became President.
I never heard them speak in disparaging terms of their Democratic colleagues. Instead, their goal was to get as many Democrats as they could to support the legislation they were advocating. Later, I worked with two other Republican House members, Reps. Jack Kemp and Phil Crane. They regularly formed coalitions with Democrats in areas where they could agree, including the elimination of the Civil Aeronautics Board and Interstate Commerce Commission, opening the airline and trucking industries to genuine free enterprise and price competition.
President Jimmy Carter supported this legislation.
At the present time, we do not see Republicans and Democrats working together to solve the nation’s problems.
Instead, we see party-line votes on almost all issues. And the Minority leader in the Senate, openly tells us that his goal is to see the President, and hence the country, fail. The old idea of a “loyal opposition” seems no longer to exist.
President Theodore Roosevelt declared in April 1910 that,
“In a republic, to be successful we must learn to combine the intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted if there is to be room for healthy growth.”
Our modern technology permits men and women to avoid the wide diversity of points of view which exist in our society. Popular websites like Facebook and YouTube use algorithms designed to provide more of what users already like. They function to isolate users with similarly minded people. It is possible for liberals to never encounter a conservative point of view and for conservatives never to hear any challenge to their own ideas.
Growing Incivility and a decline in the accessibility of diverse points of view, or a willingness to move beyond the right and left-wing ghettos of the Internet and cable television, is a growing threat to American democracy.
Debate, discussion, and difference of opinion are the lifeblood of a free society.
Demonizing those with whom we disagree does serious harm to our society. The time has come to confront the Incivility which is now getting out of hand, on both extremes in our political life. Hopefully, wiser voices will emerge—-and will prevail.
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.