political civility is dead. long live political civility?
Maybe it’s just me, but when did campaigns for civility and moderating one’s tone become the new black? As much as I can appreciate Comedy Central’s political superstars’ attempts to purge some of the rabid insanity from today’s political discourse, what exactly did their call to civility accomplish other than let those who were already fed up with foaming-at-the-mouth diatribes from politicians and talking heads on news channels vent about how much incivility irritates them? And may I ask what happened to the actual issues? While we watch our tone, economic, military, and diplomatic problems aren’t going to solve themselves, and just because we stop with the name calling by some miracle, doesn’t mean that we’re actually going to have productive debate where all hope for one was abandoned. So is civility overrated? It is just a distraction from the process?
Now, now, there’s certainly something to be said about the need for civility in public, or at least a guise of it. In the last decade, political talk shows, and politics in general, keep on getting worse. Of course it’s not that we had less partisanship or fewer rabid rants from partisan pundits about the opposition. It’s just that so much of what they said was considered to be too low brow to put on national TV. Not today. Today, the loonier you are, the more ridiculous things you say, and the more you point fingers and thunder about how you fear losing the country to plutocratic, baby seal clubbing, fundamentalist Bible thumpers, or baby eating, fascist communists while spewing enough -isms to let everyone know you’re just reaching for a grab bag of words you’re hoping sound scary enough, the more the press wants to talk to you. Rather than avoid the village idiots, we’re nearly tripping ourselves as we try to hand them microphones and launch them onto a national stage.
Want to know where the civility went? Take a good look at all the arrogant, slow-witted partisan propagandists swarming on cable news along with their hordes of sycophants, regurgitating the latest inanity from the echo chambers that serve as the source of their talking points, then tell me how you expect civility to survive in such a noxious environment. And if you find yourself trapped somewhere with Fox News on TV while you can’t just go and change the channel, prepare to be assaulted with a promise to be outraged at something every ten or fifteen minutes. No wonder you have so many angry populist movements from the right. They’re being told to get angry, stay angry, and tune in again to get even angrier. Then you’re going to come in and ask everyone to just simmer down after all that fury, passion, and pointless drivel being passed off as news are erupting on a nightly basis for years on end? Good luck with that. Oh and here’s a raincoat for that tidal wave of pure, vicious muck headed towards you. At this point, political debates are a form of catharsis that re-asserts an ideology, not discussions of what we need to do to deal with today’s problems or how to get ready for tomorrow.
And herein lies the problem. You can be as civil, timid, and cordial as you want, but the infuriated ideologues will shout you down and scream whatever they want to scream into the bullhorn. For them, civility means that you don’t question them. After years of being pampered by politicians and constantly infuriated by pundits on the nightly news, they’ve confused obedience with civil discourse and agreement with debate. They’ll bulldoze over you without thinking as they chant the hottest partisan inanity of the week, and if you’re not with them, you must be the enemy to be verbally defecated upon with an unholy fervor. Telling them to relax and have a deep conversation about, oh say, the need to retool the economy through a mix of light regulation and incentives for innovative new business models doesn’t work. Instead of a debate about the role of the government in mixed economies, you’re going to get partisan rants and conspiracy theories. And as long as this kind of insanity is considered to be prime time journalism, you can pretty much forget about civility and fruitful dialogue.