The End of Civil Rhetoric

The End of Civil Rhetoric

By Tom Bevan - September 23, 2014

Recently, I defended Harry Reid for saying something dumb. He made a couple of unfunny jokes about Asians – to a group of Asians. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden joined the insensitivity parade, using the term “shylocks” while speaking to a crowd of lawyers.  The term has long been street slang for loan sharks, but its origin is the unscrupulous Jewish money-lender in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” and it has long been viewed among Jews as an anti-Semitic slur. Both Reid and Biden apologized quickly, and more or less got a pass.

Leave aside, for the moment, the obvious double standard by the media when it comes to Republican and Democratic gaffes. Also, please look past the fact that Harry Reid and Joe Biden are recidivists when it comes to idiotic locutions. But neither man uttered his unfortunate remark with any ill intent, which matters — or at least it should.

The same cannot be said of other prominent Democrats, three of whom hit rhetorical lows in recent weeks.

While campaigning in Wisconsin earlier this month, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, declared that “Scott Walker has given women the back of his hand. I know that is stark. I know that is direct. But that is reality."

As the second and third sentences indicate, this was not a spontaneous, off-the-cuff comment.  Wasserman Schultz knew this was highly inflammatory rhetoric. Later she returned to the theme, saying, “What Republican Tea Party extremists like Scott Walker are doing is they are grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back.”

Even some Democrats were shocked that Wasserman Schultz would stoop to invoking domestic violence to criticize a political opponent. One of those Democrats was Mary Burke, who is in a tight race with Walker, and she quickly distanced herself from the remarks.  Wasserman Schultz issued a grudging non-apology apology shortly thereafter — saying, “I shouldn’t have used the words I used” — while reiterating that her larger point about Walker’s policies being hostile to women still stood.

A few days later, House Democratic Nancy Pelosi appeared on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” The uber-liberal host asked Pelosi, after kissing her, why he should care if Republicans took control of the Senate.

“It would be very important for the Democrats to retain control of the Senate.” Pelosi said, “Civilization as we know it today would be in jeopardy if Republicans win the Senate.”

“Oh,” a surprised Maher responded. “This and ISIS are threatening civilization. Oh, no!”

‘Yeah, no, it’s really important,” Pelosi responded.

Was she trying to be funny? Maybe. Watch the video and decide for yourself. But even if you conclude it was merely a lame attempt at humor, as I mentioned, intent matters. Pelosi’s intent in this case, as it often seems to be, is to demonize her political opponents as enemies of civilization. In other instances she has characterized Republicans as bigots who hate women, gays, immigrants, children, and old people. Apparently taking his cue from the leader of the legislative body he wants to join was Democratic candidate J.T. Smith, running for Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District. Earlier this month, he tweeted the following:

"The greatest country on earth is being bullied from within. Actions of Republicans in Congress are worse than #ISIL.”

Smith later tried to “explain” his tweet, writing on his Facebook page, “I am not saying that the republican party is beheading people in the streets, obviously.” But, Smith added, continuing to refuse to even capitalize the word, “The republicans have used the economy as a means to terrorize the people of this country."

Overheated political rhetoric is a long American tradition, and Republicans often engage in it, too.

But at a time in human history when actual terrorists are beheading Americans and filming the carnage — and calling on extremists to murder Americans everywhere in the world, such rhetoric seems not only out of place but uniquely offensive.  We seem to have arrived, to paraphrase writer Francis Fukuyama, at the end of civil rhetoric.  When one of the highest ranking members of the Democratic Party is willing to compare her political opponents to wife beaters, and another is unwilling to distinguish them from murderous enemies who behead our own citizens, how much more shocking can the rhetoric get? Where else can we possibly go?

It’s true that the current media environment isn’t helping matters. We live in a digital media age so cacophonous and condensed to sound bites and tweets that saying something outrageous is the only way to break through.

It’s also true that Democrats are under pressure to rev up what appears to be a lethargic electorate or face defeat at the polls in November. It’s unfortunate that we’ve come to accept the idea that voters can only be motivated by fear and anger toward their political opponents. But here’s another thought: Maybe Democratic leaders aren’t finding success in expanding their liberal base because fair-minded Americans don’t easily gravitate to a political party led by people whose default election tactic is to demonize its opponents.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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