Have Americans always been this uncivil to each other over the subject of politics?
In 2016 as the candidates began jockeying for supremacy within their own parties and laying the foundation for future attacks on the other party, Washington Post pundit, Dana Milbank, attributed the ugliness to the growing polarization of both parties. But then he added that the Republican Party had gone bonkers, throwing yet more fuel on the flames of partisan politics. When was the last time any of us had a civil conversation about how our government works or doesn’t with someone whose views are different than our own?
History seems refute the idea that today’s incivility is anything new or even that it has grown worse. In ancient Greece where democracy was born, politicians were rough, insulting and vulgar, including degrading sexual attacks. In the early days of our own democracy, as George Washington prepared to step down, opposing factions began their attacks in much the same manner. John Adams was referred to by opposing parties as “His Rotundity” mocking both his girth and his alleged aristocratic pretensions. The Federalists responded by calling the other party “a horrible sink of treason,” or an “odious conclave of tumult.” Surely more flowery language than we use today, but no less insulting and hateful. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was referred to as “the Missing Link.” But then the incivility became physical when Representative, Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor so severely with a cane that it took three years for Sumner to fully recover. While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not strike each other physically, the same cannot be said for their followers. Especially after the unexpected result of the election sent Clinton’s followers into the streets under the guise of protest to riot, beat and loot.
But those who stayed at home, dealing with either shock or elation continued to swamp social media with outrageous rants, facts blown all out of proportion and accusations that were not even facts to start with. And just when the angry rhetoric began to subside Donald Trump was inaugurated and it began all over again. Where, many of us begin to wonder, will this incivility end? And what is to become of our “melting pot” society? The Great American Ideal?
Perhaps we should take some solace that our forefathers would not have been as surprised at today’s discourse as we might think. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, “citizens are motivated not by the rational study of ideas, empirical evidence, and cool debate over the issues, but by “interests and passions. Out of these arise the conflicting “factions” and “parties,” each seeking to protect and advance its interests, and all “inflamed . . . with mutual animosity, and rendered . . . much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.” So perhaps this is the nature of democratic politics and to be expected and allowed.
But then we turned our attention to sports, especially to the upcoming Super Bowl 51. For me, I have my favorite teams that I enjoy cheering for, but it’s still just a game. National security and peoples lives don’t hang in the balance so I try to just enjoy the game. Apparently there are those who take winning and losing more seriously. I am a fan of the New England Patriots – after all, I grew up in New England. And I am not a fan of Roger Goodell who seems to enjoy making power plays, fair or not, while overlooking some really bad behavior on the part of some in the sport and serious problems like head injuries. So I was looking forward to watching my team win and a man I disliked having to shake Brady’s hand and make nice. But the Falcons played a great game. A truly great game. Young but talented, they dominated the first 2/3s of the game and it wasn’t looking good for my team. I didn’t lose faith, though. It’s not wise to underestimate Tom Brady until the last minute of the game has ticked away and he came through. Against all predictions and the talking heads, he has made Super Bowl history in more ways than just how many rings he now wears.
The Patriots happen to be on top for now. The team is deep with talent and Tom Brady is the first to give credit for his success to the men he plays with and relies on. But their day will pass, just as the Dallas Cowboys supremacy did, just as The Bruins with Bobby Orr, or the Celtics with Larry Bird, and another team will shine. It might even be that young team from Atlanta. Imagine my dismay, on Monday morning. On pages dedicated to the Patriots for and by their fans, haters jumped in to spew their bitterness and spite. Are we supposed to bring this level of incivility to everything we do? Why can’t we applaud other’s successes and admire their talent instead of trying to destroy them? We all need a few heroes in our lives to inspire us. Knocking them down seems so unproductive and unnecessary. I turned off Facebook after the election, but I never thought I’d feel like doing so just because the Patriots won another Super Bowl.