I am deeply
troubled by the tenor of current political discourse in this country.
More and more Republicans don’t just disagree with Democrats,
they despise them—and vice versa. People don’t just
challenge someone’s views—they challenge the other
person’s integrity. Enjoyable, informative, and civil discussions
between people with different points of view are becoming rare.
recent episode to deeply offend me occurred after Supreme Court
nominee Samuel Alito’s wife left the Senate Judiciary Committee
hearing in tears. An Alito opponent soon asked on a popular liberal
Web site, “Do we want a judge who would marry such a weak-willed
On the same
day, I happened to watch The War Room, a documentary
about the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. In one scene, Clinton
strategist James Carville fielded reporters’ questions arising
from allegations by conservatives that Clinton had been brainwashed
or recruited as a Soviet agent while he backpacked across Europe
well be plenty of reasons to oppose Alito’s confirmation
or to have opposed Clinton’s candidacy, but aren’t
these attacks out of bounds for a civil society?
playing politics has never been a game of pattycake. Politics
junkies have all heard that a House member from the South beat
an anti-slavery senator unconscious in 1856 and that the 1884
campaign chant against Grover Cleveland, who was accused of fathering
a child out of wedlock, was “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?
Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”
But an unreasonable
share of today’s political conversation is venomous and
lacking any effort at accuracy or fairness. I blame this problem
first on the rise of political food-fight shows on cable television,
on radio talk shows, and most recently on the Internet, where
political discourse has become the Wild West.
televised left-right sparring matches go way back—at least
to the 60 Minutes segment of the 1970s pitting conservative
James Kilpatrick against liberal Shana Alexander— the bounds
of decency were respected as the other side’s views were
attacked. But talk radio erased those boundaries. Talk radio is
tailored for like-minded people, and the host’s goal is
to promote outrage among listeners. The clear purpose is to inflame,
Fans of talk
radio are quick to argue that its growth is due to a liberal and
pro-Democratic bias among the mainstream media, a charge that
is not completely without merit. It is certainly a plausible theory
that the Newt Gingrich- led Republican sweep of the House and
Senate in 1994 was powered largely by conservative talk-show hosts,
most notably Rush Limbaugh.
and others tapped into a stream of outrage among alienated conservatives,
and whipped their audiences into a frenzy that helped lead to
the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years.
has simply taken the hostilities to new heights. Despite being
one of the most amazing technological developments of the past
100 years, it is also an electronic version of the inside door
of a public bathroom stall. Libelous accusations can be posted
anonymously. And information that is inaccurate or taken totally
out of context can get widely disseminated instantaneously.
all of this so corrosive is that fewer people are reading, watching,
or listening to political coverage that is balanced and fair.
This results in hair-trigger reactions to any perceived misdeed
by anyone in the opposite party, while partisans ignore comparable
mistakes in their own party.
It all makes
me nostalgic for my days as a high school debater. For one hour,
we would have to argue the affirmative side of a proposal. During
the next hour, we would have to make the case in opposition just
as strenuously. Before long, most of us reached the conclusion
that the truth was rarely found exclusively on a single side and
that there are very legitimate arguments on each side of just
about every important policy question. Unfortunately, fewer and
fewer Americans share that view.
is a solution to the degeneration of our political debate, I haven’t
found it. But I certainly hope someone finds it soon.
Charlie Cook’s column is published weekly in National Journal
magazine. For more information about National Journal Group's
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