Politics & Policy

Have We Lost All Hope of Maintaining Political Civility?

Vigil for Jo Cox in Parliament Square, London, June 17, 2016. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
Vicious politics are nothing new in history, but we are reaching a fever pitch in both Europe and America.

From an American perspective, the killing of Jo Cox, a member of Parliament for the British Labour party, might seem sadly familiar. Americans, unfortunately, are used to an intermittent stream of shootings, whether from urban gang warfare, terrorist attacks, or assaults by individuals with untreated mental illness.

In Britain, Cox’s assassination shook the nation. Both sides of the European Union referendum campaign ceased their operations for the day out of respect for the fallen lawmaker, and tributes poured in from politicians across the world. Reports that the gunman had yelled “Britain first” as he shot Cox and another man led to the condemnation of the attack as as an assault on everything the West stands for: liberty, democracy, freedom. That the gunman appears to have connections to neo-Nazi groups only cements that sentiment. But the rot goes deeper. Yes, this man harbored sympathies for neo-Nazis, and, yes, he may have had some sort of mental illness. To the extent that the actions of human beings are connected with the environments in which they live, though, the murder of Jo Cox reflects certain unpleasant tendencies in modern political life.

Both the U.S. and the U.K. now find themselves at a pivotal moment. But pivotal moments are often fractious ones, and in both countries, tensions have opened deep cleavages in political and cultural life. The U.K.’s referendum on its membership in the European Union has set the nation against itself: Parties are splitting, and demagogues have captured the public attention.

To a maddening extent, the rhetoric of the Leave campaign has demonized people from countries other than Britain.

To a maddening extent, the rhetoric of the Leave campaign has demonized people from countries other than Britain. Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, is one of the most impressive politicians in the Western world: Largely through his effort, what was once a fringe belief that existed almost solely on the margins of the Conservative party — the notion that Britain should exit from the European Union — is now held by a large number of British voters. But he has achieved this through demagoguery and incivility. On Tuesday, the day before Jo Cox died, Farage unveiled his campaign’s newest poster: an enormous image of a long line of Arab asylum seekers on the border between Croatia and Slovenia. The meaning was clear: We can’t have these desperate Middle Easterners coming to our country. Farage, like many politicians in the run-up to an election, may have wanted the ad to pack an emotional punch. But such a tactic pushes the public to perceive certain human beings as the great Other rather than human beings like them. And it’s a short leap from the dehumanization of migrants to the dehumanization of political opponents. And then a short leap to their murder.

Witness, for instance, the extent to which supporters of the Leave campaign — though never the campaign’s leaders — regularly dub the Remain camp as “traitors.” A recent headline from the the Daily Stormer, an alt-right website, is an apt example: “Slimy Traitor Cameron Hails Terrorist Mayor as They Join Forces Against Brexit.” The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, is depicted as a terrorist; Cameron’s not explicitly a terrorist, in this view, but he might as well be, because he’s pro-Remain and is campaigning with Khan. Since the Remain advocates oppose Parliament’s reclaiming full sovereignty from Brussels, the Daily Stormer accuses them of betraying the British people. This scurrilous charge stabs at the heart of the democratic system. When one group no longer believes that its opponents are working in good faith to achieve what would be best for Britain — though groups can disagree about what constitutes “best” — the door opens to far more than just political disagreement.

#share#In the United States, a similar phenomenon has occurred. Donald Trump’s campaign has torn the nation apart, inspiring base passions in both his supporters and opponents. From his podium-cum-pulpit, Trump’s not civil; and the Left is uncivil as well. Accusations of bigotry, racism, sexism, and everything else under the sun have characterized our political discourse for years, but these accusations have intensified in recent months.

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This didn’t come from nowhere. Americans have long hated their politicians. Congress’s approval ratings haven’t risen above 20 percent since 2011. From town-hall forums I’ve attended in Connecticut, I get the impression that many voters see politicians as hucksters who are essentially stealing a living, who care only about themselves and their own interests and pay package. The intense hostility many people hold towards politicians has no doubt helped elevate Trump, the supreme non-politician, to the head of the Republican party.

Political civility is in danger of becoming a lost art.

Political civility is in danger of becoming a lost art. In the United States, political opponents are quick to blame one another for the horrendous acts committed by Islamic terrorists or schizophrenic young men. Witness, for instance, the New York Times’ recent editorial that blamed the National Rifle Association and the Christian Right for the Orlando shooting. And by no means is this vicious finger-pointing and misdirection confined to one side — it has become the default means of expressing political disagreement. One’s opponents are always responsible for the destruction of culture, they bear guilt for the murder of thousands, and they seek only to accrue power to themselves without regard for the cost.

This path leads to violence. For the first time in decades, political violence is the theme of the campaign — whether it’s the actual violence from anti-Trump protesters at Trump rallies, such as the violence in San Jose a few weeks ago, or the specter of the presumably violent policies President Trump would enact against Mexicans and Muslims and any other group he deems a threat.

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This is a broken culture. And it’s not just the fault of politicians. Here and in Europe, there is the feeling that people hate — not just dislike, but vehemently hate — those who are not like them. Maybe this has always been the case; maybe we’ve just blotted out the less flattering parts of past political conflict — such as when John Quincy Adams’s supporters, in 1828, called Andrew Jackson’s wife a “convicted adulteress” and his dead mother a “common prostitute.” Shortly after Jackson won the election, his wife died — some say from the emotional distress caused by the slurs against her.

#related#But the past doesn’t justify the poisonous atmosphere of the present, when various groups, all based on some sense of identity, hate other groups simply because they’re the others.

A culture of hate has consequences. For one thing, it means that politics, as Tyler Cowen argues, is just about status — raising or lowering the status of different groups in society. And it also means that some people are going to see less of a reason not to hurt their opponents. When everyone feels part of the same society — some might call it the nation — we can learn to live with one another. We might disagree, but we’re still countrymen, and we all just want to do what we think best. When that system erodes, when the Other Party seems like the world’s greatest evil, Jo Cox gets murdered. We don’t want that blood on our hands, do we?

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