Advancing a Free Society

Seoul Searching

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Earlier this week, I took a lengthy flight from California to discuss a problem for which there are no quick fixes: civility, or a lack thereof, in American society.

As a participant at the 2012 Asan Plenum in Seoul, I had the honor of sharing a panel with fellow Hooverites David Brady and Tod Lindberg on the state of social polarization in the U.S.

I’ll leave it to my colleagues to express their thoughts on this topic – they’re far more eloquent in their words than anything I could paraphrase.

As for my contribution to the panel, I chose to focus on civility in U.S. politics – which seemed appropriate, given the editorial space devoted in recent months to the anticipated long and ugly campaign Americans can soon expect.

A few thoughts:

In my opinion, there’s a decided roughness around the edges in American society – decay in decency and decorum. Symptoms of the disease: people littering their bodies with graffiti, overt vulgarities, and society’s choice to lionize those who lead their lives with a decided lack of dignity (on that latter point, I’m on Jon Hamm’s side).

One can see this on display in, off all places, San Francisco – ironically, a city forever congratulating itself for its supposed tolerance.

San Francisco is a tourism hub. It’s also the embodiment of “nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there” – not if you’re starting a family.

Just ask a mom or dad who’s tried to bring a baby stroller on a Muni bus. Sometimes, drivers will refuse the service. If they do let the stroller on board, it has to be folded and kept in the front. But not the stroller’s owners. They go in the back.

City bureaucrats have deemed parents and toddlers a hindrance to the efficiency of public transportation. But what this comes down, in my estimation, is bad manners (would a bus driver say no to a passenger in a wheelchair?) and an insensitivity to cut a family a little slack.

Another way to look at this: presidential funerals.

When you have a spare moment, check out footage of John F. Kennedy’s funeral proceedings in 1963 – specifically, the public’s wait at the Capitol Rotunda to view the flag-draped coffin.

You’ll see a long line of Americans paying their respects to a fallen leader – most, if not all, wearing their Sunday best.

Now, look up footage of Ronald Reagan’s funeral proceedings in 2004. Folks came out to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley in t-shirts and shorts (then again, I’ve seen people head off to Sunday services in the same sloppy attire).

It’s bad manners and tackiness – another manifestation of this societal erosion.

“Civility” is a word that’s already appeared with alarming frequency in this year’s election. The flap over Rush Limbaugh and the “s-word”, Mitt Romney’s faith and Barack Obama’s race – to name just three topics that are preferred media chew-toys – all raise questions as to whether the American political system has been too brusque, too loathsome.

But what might be helpful is a little perspective.

Going back to its earliest chapters, America’s political system hasn’t been shy about mixing dirt and water

(here’s a list of 10 mudslinging moments in American president elections that are far worse than anything said in this current cycle).

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson drafted the American Declaration of Independence. Politically, you’d think he’d be beyond reproach. Yet twenty years after the founding of the republic, Jefferson’s sex life was deemed fair game by at least one newspaper.

But Jefferson was no saint himself. He hired a private investigator to snoop into Alexander Hamilton’s personal life, to prove that his Federalist rival was having an affair with a married woman.

As for Hamilton, he used newspaper ink, letters and dinner salons to smear the reputation of Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s running mate in 1800. You probably know how that worked out for Hamilton.

Which isn’t the only time, btw, that American politicians have gotten physical – for example, Rep. Preston Brooks taking a walking stick to Sen. Charles Sumner’s head during an argument over slavery and states’ rights in May of 1856.

The point is: maintaining a polite discourse has long been a challenge to the American way of conducting politics. But there are two facets of the Information Age that present a challenge to today’s civility – problems unfamiliar to previous generations of Americans.

They are:

1)  The 24/7 News Cycle. Thanks to satellites and coaxial cable, we’re better informed than ever before. Theoretically, at least. The reality is news providers find providing the news to be deadly dull, not to mention ratings-lite. And so they’re introduced “personality” to the news cycle – bluster and opinion that’s long on contention, short on insight and disruptive to a more civil dialogue. It brings fame and fortune to provocateurs; it’s murder on everyday civility.

2)  The Internet. One computer and one connection potentially turn every American into an opinion outlet. Unfortunately, it also introduces a lot of unfiltered bile to the political dialogue that might have gone unnoticed in earlier, offline times. Thoughts and words once reserved for neighborhood bars now find their way into the spotlight. Is it a coincidence that the three presidents of on-line America – Clinton, Bush and Obama – all have had to withstand bitter, Internet-driven character attacks?

Try as some will to introduce the idea of smears and beat downs in this election, let’s assume that Obama and Romney get off a little lighter than the Founding Fathers – and they don’t take their differences, many as they may be, to a cliff alongside the Hudson River.

What there is, hopefully, is a public that can better differentiate between real and genuine outrage – last week’s silliness over which presidential candidate is a better best friend to “man’s best friend” being a good example. In a more civil society, the trivial is recognized for what it is – a distraction from real concerns, that’s undeserving of lasting attention.

Second, here’s hoping the media better police themselves. There’s nothing stopping the cable-news channels from easing up on the hair-pulling and name-calling that passes for on-air punditry and news analysis.

Third, the Internet. You can’t shut it down. But you can resist its less desirable qualities – the venom and rumormongering.

Finally, there’s the question of how the candidates themselves conduct their business.

It’s lamentable that the President of the United States – no pauper he – would choose to make Mitt Romney’s wealth a dividing line between good and bad in the America of 2012, be it the Buffett Rule or student-loan affordability.

Ironically, it’s what the left has long criticized the right of doing: mocking those for the circumstances of their birth and their station in life.

Moreover, there’s a sadness to seeing this particular President, who was swept into office and placed on a higher moral ground of optimism and unity, reduced to taking snide asides at another man’s wealth portfolio.

Not civil. Just sad.

If, by late October, the President and his super-PAC continue to wager heavily on Romney’s wealth as a political embarrassment of riches, it just may turn out that this negative detour was what killed Obama’s road to reelection.

And, like Hamilton back in his day, history will record it as another example of political incivility backfiring badly.