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January 12 2011

IWF in the News: Some Historical Perspective on Political Civility

Sabrina Schaeffer

In the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), there has been near-hysteria about the tenor of our political culture. Has the inflammatory rhetoric gone too far? Is there too much vitriol in American politics? Is the Tea Party movement to blame?

This entire pointed conversation about our current state of political affairs - spearheaded largely by the American left -reveals a serious lack of self-reflection or historical perspective.

For those who feel compelled to point fingers at conservative radio personalities, Sarah Palin or the more indistinct Tea Party, they ought to take some time to read Joanne Freeman's Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. If one is under the illusion that there was ever a golden era of political politeness, the Yale University professor of American history will tell you otherwise. "Regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement," Freeman writes, "was the tenor of national politics from the outset."

And as the decades passed, the hostility only grew. In a New York Times article just yesterday, Freeman writes, "in the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them." She recounts, for instance, a shooting between senators in 1850 and a near-fatal caning in the Senate chamber in 1856.

While this kind of public violence might seem outdated, few disagree that there is still an uncomfortable level of hostility in our political discourse today - on both the right and the left. Certainly there are conservative talk show hosts in business to entertain by inciting anger. More appalling, however, is the fury coming from political and media elites on the left like Paul Krugman, or Keith Olbermann, who has made despicable, unwarranted comments against women, conservatives and members of our military.

In her book, Freeman does a brilliant job describing what she refers to as the "honor code" that helped channel the hostility and violence in the early republic and beyond. There was an unspoken rulebook of certain words, slurs and behavior that were known to be off limits. "Disagree as men might on the purpose, structure or tenor of national governance - argue as they did about the meaning of concepts like federalism and republicanism - clash as they must about the future of the nation," Freeman writes, "they expected their opponents to behave like gentlemen."

Perhaps this is what many Americans feel is missing today - a sense of order, decorum and civility in our disputes. Today it feels as if boundaries are increasingly ignored, which can create a sense of disorder, chaos and fear. But in the wake of this tragedy, it's important not to undermine the value - the necessity - of the arguments our nation is having today. Too often when figures like Olbermann talk about the need to cut back on the ugly rhetoric, they are, in effect, making light of the important issues at stake. The growth of the federal government, the role of regulatory agencies and individual responsibilities and rights are serious concerns - ones that sometimes require inflammatory rhetoric.

As Freeman writes, "communication is the heart and soul of American democratic governance." And, I agree, there's always room for more civil discourse.


Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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