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If This is What Counts for Civil Discourse…

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( – promoted by lowkell)

By Mike Lieberman, Chair, Arlington County Democratic Committee

January 2011

“Repealing the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act.”  This is what the new Republican leadership chose to call its bill to repeal the new health care reform bill.  “Job-Killing” – a dubious claim at best, and a needlessly incendiary term at worst, especially for a bill that has no chance of being enacted into law.

Over last several years, I, like so many of Americans, have cringed at the tone of our public discourse.  It seems as though name calling and mud slinging is now considered a baseline for political debate, with every new low breathlessly covered by a media hungry to decide which side has scored more points, and what those points could mean for an election now nearly two years away.

Recent history is replete with discouraging examples of this demoguery – from Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” at President Obama during last year’s State of the Union address, to Republican Leader John Boehner’s overheated screams of “Hell No” on the House floor during the debate on the health care reform bill, to then-candidate and now Republican Congressman Ben Quayle claiming in a campaign ad that “Barack Obama is the worst president in history” and that he would “go to Washington and knock the hell out of the place.”  But Republicans are not alone in these outbursts.  Equally shameful are Democratic exhortations that Republican claims of a “government takeover of health care [is] ia big lie, just like Goebbels,” equating Republican arguments to the lies told to Jews during the Holocaust.

Such claims are all the more discouraging because they are unnecessary.  Our elected representatives are expected to stick to their principles; indeed, we often elect people we are confident will do so.  But it is possible to disagree on an issue even as heated as health care reform without claiming the other side is “job-killing,” comparing them to Nazis, or claiming they will establish death panels to kill your grandmother.

I worked on Capitol Hill for six years for a Member of Congress named John Spratt who took the opposite approach.  He went out of his way to be kind to everyone he met – Republican or Democrat – and considered Republican members in all cases colleagues, and in many cases friends.  This is not to say he was not often frustrated by positions he disagreed with; he was.  But when he disagreed, he did so respectfully, and did as much research as possible to back up his position in the hope that the weight of facts would win converts to his cause.

John Spratt lost his re-election to a 15th term in 2010, and will not be returning to Congress.  But at his going away party, one of his Republican colleagues, Henry Brown – a man who voted differently that John on nearly every contentious piece of legislation that came before the House – not only attended, but offered his thanks for the opportunity to serve with John, and shared gratitude for the many things they had accmplished together for their home state of South Carolina.  It was a demonstration that cooperation and collegiality does exist across party lines in Congress, and an example that among the din of hyperbole and name calling, there is and should be another way.

As we move into yet another election year in Virginia – and one whose stakes run particularly high because of redistricting – I sincerely hope that candidates in both parties, and those running against each other in primaries, will pause to choose their words carefully, without the damaging labels or rhetoric we have become all too used to.  As Chair of the Arlington Democratic Party, I consider it a personal goal to urge decorum and respect from all candidates on our Democratic ballot, and I have every hope that my friends on the Republican side will do the same.  

We can be better.  We must be better.  We owe ourselves better.

  • Thanks, Mike!

  • aznew

    The issue of heated rhetoric is not one of civility, but rather touches, IMHO, on two other important aspects of our discourse.

    First is respect for America and our political system. I, and most liberals I know, are great American and Patriots because we strongly believe in the central tenet of American self-governance — majority rule (as expressed through fair elections), as limited by the rights contained in the U.S. Constitution.

    So, when GOP political leaders assert that if election results don;t please them, they might use “Second Amendment remedies,” or when they suggest that the intent of policies advanced by their political opponents to, say, improve health care in America or provide a safety net for the elderly, is in reality to establish tyrannical control over people’s lives; or when GOP leaders assert that the government is the enemy of the people; or when GOP leaders assert that the President of the United States is illegitimate, it is fundamentally unAmerican and dangerous. Our system has proven that it is capable of accomplishing radical and peaceful political change through an election process.

    A second issue is when leaders stop caring about the truth. Our leaders must care, because there is so much noise out there, and so many allegations flying around, it is impossible for many people to determine the truth.  So, when lies like “death panels” get repeated over and over, or lies about the alleged insolvency of Social Security get repeated over and over, it is corrosive to the operation of our democratic institutions. The purpose of lies is not to educate voters, but rather to deceive and confuse them.

    So, I don’t think civility is the issue, and I think suggesting it is makes it something of a red herring that plays into the hands of the right wingers, who interpret every critique of their policies and positions has hate speech. Or it gives rise to some of the childish efforts at satire I’ve seen on some Virginia blogs in the wake of Tuscon suggesting that Target stores was using violent rhetoric in its name and logo (man, I wish I could be that clever!).

    Is a lie acceptable because it is uttered with a civil tone? Is the anti-American rhetoric regularly employed by the GOP acceptable if it is couched in the language of the U.S. Revolution — a revolution against a government in which Americans, quite distinct form today, did not have a voice.  

    A few days ago, Blue Virginia carried an item about Morgan Griffin referencing the “chains of Obamacare.” It was an unfortunate metaphor, but clearly not intentionally racist. Still, Griffin felt the need to distance himself from it, so he asserted, with a a straight face, that he said “change of Obamacare.”

    Now, Griffin’s assertion was silly — everyone could just watch the clip of him speaking, in particular the context, and know with 100% certainty he said “chains of Obamacare.” But he told the lie anyway?

    Look, it’s a minor flap that will have no effect of Griffin’s almost certain nondescript and almost certainly unspectacular Congressional career that is about to unfold.

    But at the same time, this little lie speaks volumes because it is so brazen. This was just a big “F**k You” from Griffin to America.

    It might be uncivil to say that, but it is the truth.

  • libra

    with “aznew”. Civility is all very nice, but it’s just a silk dress and lipstick. If you put it on a pig, it’ll still be a pig underneath, just tarted up.

    “Aznew” brought up Griffith’s lie, which we seem to be forced to accept, in the name of “civil discourse”, rather than call it for what it is. There are other lies we’re exposed to daily, which we are not supposed to call “lies” (or even “fibs” or “untruths”), lest we’re accused of being overheated and uncivil.

    The result is that we’re likely to end up with all form and no substance, like the false “buddy system” that’s being talked about vis the seating at the State of the Union Address. You want to show how civil and friendly you are with the opposition, show it where it matters — in your speeches on the floor and in your votes. This “pose for TV” 60minute truce is nothing but BS (if you forgive my “language”)