Civility, Beliefs and America’s Toxic Political Scene
by Peter Orvetti
You don’t have to give up your beliefs to respect those with different ones.
There is a common misconception in our increasingly toxic political environment that only pragmatists and compromisers can find ways to be civil. How, this argument goes, can those with decidedly conflicting views on stark matters like abortion, gay equality, terrorism, or foreign intervention ever really get along? Is “considerate” just a nicer way of saying “milquetoast”?
Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the most visible conservative ideologues on Capitol Hill, disproved this sentiment during a trip back home. Appearing at a town hall meeting, Coburn defended House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying, “I’m 180 degrees in opposition to the speaker — she’s a nice lady.” When the crowd grumbled, he continued, “How many of you all have met her? … Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t mean they’re not a good person.”
Coburn also got to the heart of the trend toward political polarization by pointing out the perils of getting news just from one source, or from one perspective. He urged the crowd to not “just watch Fox News or CNN — watch ‘em both.” In a time when those on the left click over to Daily Kos and Keith Olbermann while those on the right have their Hannity and Limbaugh and Little Green Footballs, Coburn said he reads the liberal New York Times and Washington Post as well as the conservative Wall Street Journal to “get a perspective” and “know what other people’s thoughts are — not just what I hear through a pipe channel.”
Coburn, who entered the Senate with Barack Obama and became one of the future president’s closest friends in the chamber, is not the first ideologue to put civility ahead of rancor. Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were very close, despite the differences in both their beliefs and their lifestyles. (In fact, it was the latter that helped bring them together – Hatch, a Mormon teetotaler, helped Kennedy as he struggled with ending his dependence on alcohol.) The tradition goes back to the Republic’s earliest days, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were first allies, then bitter rivals, then intimate friends.
Kathleen Parker, a conservative syndicated columnist, became a chief voice for civility after an unsettling experience in 2008. Parker wrote a fair and dispassionate column in September of that year, urging Sarah Palin to leave the Republican national ticket for the good of the party. A shaken Parker reported in her subsequent column that readers had written to call her a “traitor” and to say her mother “should have aborted me and left me in a dumpster.” Parker said that after two decades as a pundit, she was used to angry mail, but that these missives were “not just angry, but vicious and threatening.”
Parker later used her national platform to promote the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, founded in 1997 by P.M. Forni, as well as Mark DeMoss’s Civility Project, which “urges a voluntary pledge to be civil in discourse and behavior and to stand against incivility.” Like Coburn, Parker sees modern media as part of the problem. She wrote that while “in previous eras, an uncivil exchange might be confined to a room, a building or a public square, today’s media technology means that it is captured, amplified, replayed and distributed — perpetually.”
Making wild accusations against those in power, and tossing crazed slurs their way, is an American tradition. But in the age of cable television and the Internet, the tradition has grown uglier. Bill Clinton was accused of drug-running; George W. Bush was accused of planning and profiting off of 9/11. Bush was booed by Democrats during his 2005 State of the Union address – not over the emotional issue of the war in Iraq, but over his plans to reform the government pension system.
by Peter Orvetti
This sort of thing is cleverly stoked by the professional agitators of both left and right. Ann Coulter, a supporter of “sending liberals to Guantanamo,” once said, “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” On the other side, Michael Moore called Bush “a deserter, an election thief, a drunk driver, a WMD liar, and a functional illiterate.”
Progressive columnist Molly Ivins, a veteran Bush critic, wrote of her bête noire that “he is by and large perfectly affable. You would have to work at it to dislike him personally.” Ivins sardonically added, “Did you know that it is quite possible not to hate someone and at the same time notice their policies are disastrous for people in this country? Quite a thought, isn’t it? Grown-ups can actually do that – can think a policy is disastrous without hating the person behind it.”
For many angry Americans on all sides, the political has become far too personal.
Peter Orvetti is a journalist and writer residing in Washington, D.C. He ran Orvetti.com, an award-nominated political website, from 1997 through 2002. In 2009, he published a memoir entitled “Reconciliation: A Half Life”.