Skip to main content

Thoughts on Civility and Public Discourse

Read "The man who drove us into our national ditch" this morning, by Michael Smerconish . Though focused upon a particular "shock-jock" (Morton Downey, Jr.), it touched on the whole spectrum of political rhetoric in the United States. And reminded me of recent thoughts about the current state of US public discourse. One of the points that Mr. Smerconish makes gave me deep pause: we are in uniquely extreme times in terms of political divide.

First, I'm reminded of the long-standing uncivil thread within our political conversations. Consider the Jefferson/Adams campaign of 1800 and the Jackson/Adams campaign of 1824, amongst others. Political rhetoric and person invective have been part of our public banter as long as we've been, well, us. Also look to the uncivil history of English politics to get further context at our roots.

Smerconish, though, points to research by the National Journal pointing to truly historical levels of division. I feel this too, but am not so sure I fully agree with the absolute quality of this statement. Well, at least when considered in full historical context. Let's not forget the Caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the US Senate. As nasty as political speech has become, we haven't had any assaults in Congressional chambers lately. Ultimately, historically rhetorical venom ebbs and flows, currently flowing at the ugliest of levels.

History aside, our ugly rhetoric compromises our political effectiveness. Exacerbating this: our 24/7 election cycle. Continuous campaigns laden with brutal, and often personal, invective, create powerful challenges to coming back together. Our areas of consensus become forgotten. And our divided house fiddles in the face of the "burning Rome" issues we face. Sadly, this gets compounded by our tendency to resist action until facing deep crisis. But that's a post for another day.

  1. Forbes ran this great historical look at American political rhetoric a few years ago. I still recommend it, even with autoplay ads.
  2. While pulling this together, I found this great site: Presidential Campaign Rhetoric. Well, it's great if you are interested in the history of political communications in the United States. Sadly, it's not been added to since 2014, but it stands nicely without newer content. 
  3. Thinking larger than the US, there's a whole Wikipedia page covering legislative violence. However, the US has some un-illustrious additions to the list.