Where did the civility go in our political discourse? This question has been asked time and time again in the wake of the Tucson shooting. Many blame political virulence, partisan pundits, Tea party members, conservatives, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, etc, etc. More than hypocrisy this question from the liberal media shows an ignorance of history.
As if political discourse has become more uncivil in the last 20 years, moving from dignified and reserved to out of control and distorted. Is this reality? Wishful thinking? The simple reality is that as long as humans have engaged in politics, even in its infancy, politics could and did turn ugly. From nearly the beginning of our country, both political parties had damaging periodicals which attacked with a vengeance. Both Federalists and Republican propagandists put out pamphlets and letters denouncing the other side. The Federalists were accused of being “monarchists” while the Republicans were against any growth in the federal government. It was less than 50 years into the experiment of democracy, that with the prospect of war with France being very real, that the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 was passed and signed by John Adams. In a matter of weeks Congress gave the president permission to deport any alien that he deemed a threat, and protected the President, Congress, and elected officials from libel and made the act of insighting sedition a punishable crime.
Many looking back complain that this movement by Congress during the Adams administration is one of the darkest pieces of legislation; however, what it undermines and really brings to light is the fact that civility has not digressed or decayed as we always suppose. More aptly civility has yet to be attained. In case you disagree recall that also during the Adam’s Administration the first brawl in Congress took place between Lyons and Griswold, which included spitting, fire-place pokers, and a wrestling match requiring other members of Congress to drag the two contenders apart. Sound like a precursor to reality television?
Before we start demanding new controls on talk radio or political pundits, which will try to legislate civility and in the process infringe on the First Amendment, it is important to remember that in the heart of partisan bickering, trash talking, and the governmental grind which ensues that it is not the sign of impending “Armageddon”. Rather it is a sign that the government is acting in step with political precedent, staying true to tradition, and working much like it always has.