“It can seem,” orated President Obama at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, “like a return to civility is not possible, like the very idea is a relic of some bygone era.”
It can indeed seem that way, primarily because it is true: It is not possible. In this era, as in any other, “civility” is a myth. It is a vain fancy, a smug and insidious chimera that the uninitiated, the devious, and the naïve habitually fail to comprehend is incompatible with democratic “politics.” Calls for its “return” are designed primarily as a means of quashing dissent and inflating the speaker’s own sense of self-decency. Politics is disagreement and discord, and as such it will yield disagreement and discord. This should be welcomed, not shunned. Five hundred years ago, domestic conflict was routinely resolved by arrows and by pikes; now, it is routinely resolved by words and by votes. We cannot expect to maintain robust debate if we expect all our punches to be pulled, and we should suspect those would undermine robust debate or consider themselves set apart from it.
The few periods in history in which there was general political consensus coincide neatly with the few points in history in which political language was softened. That is the natural consequence of acquiescence. But it is not “civil” to be gentle with someone with whom you agree. As anyone with more than a passing understanding of this nation’s history can attest, “civility” in the sense that its advocates would like to see it has never existed in these rambunctious United States. Short of abolishing politics or making all opposition illegitimate, it never will. Obama and his ilk are onto a loser here, as well they should be.
Moreover, the more sensible among us judge men by their deeds and not by their words, and Obama’s politics is most certainly not civil. If he considers civility to be an artifact of the past, his attitude indeed seems to be . . . Forward! The Barack Obama that exists in his own mind — and the minds of his acolytes — is a man unsullied by the vicissitudes of political conflict. Sure, his opponents and the practitioners of the “old politics” might “play a little dirty,” but he has the angels on his side and he cuts through the “petty differences” to do “what is right.” His critics, meanwhile, are tricksters who would divide the country and have hatred in their hearts.#more#
There is a small problem with this contention: It is abject nonsense. Obama is as uncivil as the best of them. As Politico reports, the 2012 general election has been preceded by a
crabby, negative campaign that has been more about misleading and marginal controversies than the major challenges facing the country. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney can both claim parenthood of this ugly child.
But there is a particular category of the 2012 race to the low road in which the two sides are not competing on equal terms: Obama and his top campaign aides have engaged far more frequently in character attacks and personal insults than the Romney campaign.
With a few exceptions, Romney has maintained that Obama is a bad president who has turned to desperate tactics to try to save himself. But Romney has not made the case that Obama is a bad person, nor made a sustained critique of his morality a central feature of his campaign.
Obama, who first sprang to national attention with an appeal to civility, has made these kind of attacks central to his strategy. The argument, by implication from Obama and directly from his surrogates, is not merely that Romney is the wrong choice for president but that there is something fundamentally wrong with him.
To make the case, Obama and his aides have used an arsenal of techniques — personal ridicule, suggestions of ethical misdeeds and aspersions against Romney’s patriotism — that many voters and commentators claim to abhor, even as the tactics have regularly proved effective.
Nor is the Democratic party any better. From the Hill:
Mitt Romney’s campaign issued a statement Wednesday demanding Democratic officials “cease and desist from comparing those with whom they disagree to Nazis” after the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party compared Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) to Adolf Hitler mistress Eva Braun.
“The latest offender is Dick Harpootlian, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, whose outrageous words I will not repeat,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.) in a statement released by the Romney campaign. “In recent days, we’ve seen similarly disgraceful statements from a top Kansas Democratic delegate and from the chairman of the California Democratic Party.
“President Obama has called for civility in American politics. If his call is to be taken seriously, it’s time for the President to rein in those of his supporters and allies who are trivializing Nazism while also shamelessly trampling on the most basic rules of American political discourse.”
It would be nice if these things didn’t happen; inevitability by no means confers virtue. But they do, and, given that they do, the very least that we might ask for is that the practitioners of politics refrain from shooting arrows with one hand and introducing bees into their bonnets with the other.