Political rhetoric inspires broad incivility
People behave badly. Why not, since there's no consequence to leaders?
Even leading up to the Civil War, there were consequences to incivility in politics. (Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash)
During a congressional debate in 1860, as pressure simmered toward a civil war that ultimately claimed 624,000 American lives, an anti-slavery Massachusetts Republican, Charles Train, was finding it hard to deliver his remarks amid pestering by a pro-slavery Alabama Democrat, George Houston. Train gamely persisted, but when Houston interrupted, “You are a lying scoundrel,” the situation became too much for those “gentlemen,” as members of Congress referred to themselves, who held that the chamber should be a place of reasoned debate. Proceedings stopped abruptly, until, finally, Houston apologized.
It was, The New York Times asserted the next day, “the most disgraceful of the many disgraceful scenes” witnessed in the House in those days, “which has degraded the Representative office in the eyes of all respectable Americans, and damaged the general reputation of our institutions throughout the world.” When rules of decorum are so violated, the editorial noted, it is natural that “men of a lower grade” would then “disregard them far more grossly.” That is, coarse words among supposed leaders could lead to worse behavior throughout society.1
It seems quaint now that Americans would tut-tut over such language in Washington. We’re awash in nasty words from within and around the nation’s capital — and ugly ideas, too, that are even more harmful than name-calling. The result is exactly what the editorialist of 163 years ago predicted: not only is bad language rampant, but so is worse behavior across the country.
Flip on a newscast, and you’ll see plenty of verbal provocation. There’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, a star among today’s Republican House members, repeatedly shouting, “Liar!” during President Joe Biden’s last State of the Union address, her finger stabbing the air from her bulky white fur-lined coat. And here’s Rep. Elise Stefanik, the fourth-ranking House Republican, asserting on Fox News that Biden has “committed multiple criminal acts,” while producing no evidence of any such thing. Day after day, House Oversight Committee Chair Jim Comer, a Kentucky Republican, refers to the “Biden crime family” and its “bribery scandal” — a scandal which, based on documents and testimony yielded by hearings Comer has led, seems to involve no bribery, nor any payments to the president.2
That’s mild, of course, compared to the latest angry rhetoric of the Republicans’ leader, Donald Trump. He has described Black prosecutors as “animal” and “rabid.” He labeled Jack Smith, the special prosecutor who brought his federal indictments, “deranged” and the Department of Justice “a sick nest.” Nor is his over-heated rhetoric aimed only at political foes: He alone can prevent World War III, Trump now says; “nuclear war…perhaps obliteration of the entire world” certainly awaits us if he doesn’t regain the White House.3
Of course, that’s not the half of it. He called African nations “shithole countries,” wishing that people from predominantly white European nations would immigrate to America instead. He bragged that because he was a celebrity, women would let him “grab them by the p—sy.” Presumably, those weren’t the women he doesn’t like; those undesirables he has referred to as “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals.” (I do not understand how any woman, or any man with a daughter, a sister or a wife, could vote for this man.)4
Why are we deluged with such overblown language and harsh attacks? Because it works. Incendiary words arouse the passions of people who are already inclined to support the views of the politicians who spout them, and make more temperate views seem weak. Those excited masses are then more inclined to vote and to grow ever more devoted to their champions.
It’s hard to combat the trend of inflammatory rhetoric — because, as the title of a scholarly article published this spring notes, “Bad language makes good politics.” Adam Gibbons, a philosophy professor at Lingnan University, wrote in the Inquiry article, “Politics abounds with bad language: lying and bullshitting, grandstanding and virtue signaling, code words and dogwhistles, and more.” There’s a payoff for the language, Gibbons noted, so “the production of bad language becomes rational.”5
That payoff is, of course, political success. And at least as it pertains to Joe Biden, Republicans don’t even need to dig up evidence of wrongdoing, let alone prove anything, because polling published this week by Yahoo News shows that they’ve already succeeded in tainting the president’s reputation: Biden and his family are now viewed as corrupt by only a slightly smaller portion of the public than is the Trump family.6 This, despite the mountains of evidence in four indictments of Trump — unproven, but certainly more persuasive than the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing by his successor — not to mention such arguably corrupt acts as the $2 billion investment Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner snagged from the murderous crown prince of Saudi Arabia, whom he befriended while working in the White House.
The distrust of Biden that Republicans have sown in the absence of apparent misbehavior underscores a sharp reality: Political life in America has become not just ruthless, but rude. And that rude political culture is pushing our society toward what sociologists call anomie — that is, a state of breakdown of social or ethical standards.
A study in Harvard Business Review last year documented the incivility facing workers on the frontline of businesses: “from ignoring people to intentionally undermining them to mocking, teasing, and belittling them,” wrote the study’s author, University of North Carolina business professor Christine Porath.7
Does mocking, teasing and belittling sound like the behavior of anybody you’ve noted in public life? They are, in fact, typical responses of people with narcissistic personality disorder, which a number of leading mental health professionals believe is the illness afflicting Donald Trump.8 Meanwhile, campaign experts have noted that Trump’s lasting popularity with Republican voters has led many candidates to mimic his behavior, extending the sphere of rudeness throughout the political ecosystem.
And that no-holds-barred approach to politics — the ugly innuendo, the nasty words, the outrageous allegations — trickles down to all the rest of us. It’s contagious. If those who lead our public institutions can rant without basis and behave badly with impunity, why shouldn’t we all?
Of course, we can’t attribute all of the bad behavior we see around us to political influences. Megan Ranney, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, told Axios this week, “I think it’s a breakdown of social norms.” Partly, she and other experts note, it’s a result of the pandemic, which in many ways increased stress and upset the way we live.9 You could even blame the weather, which is almost always unsettled these days somewhere, a result of human-induced climate change, which is placing extraordinary pressure on so many parts of the globe.
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that there was a consequence for the sort of uncivil behavior that seems common nowadays. In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, interrupted President Barack Obama’s speech on health care to a joint session of Congress, loudly retorting, “You lie,” as Obama noted that his proposal would not extend to undocumented immigrants. Wilson issued a public apology the next day, and was formally rebuked by a vote of the House. Fourteen years later, the echo in the same chamber by Majorie Taylor Greene drew no similar response. Even just before the Civil War, when the gentleman from Alabama insulted the gentleman from Massachusetts, there was more consequence to politicians’ rudeness than we see today.
Nor do we usually get apologies from the people who yell at airline ticket agents or harangue sales clerks or scold nurses or cut us off in traffic. They’ve seen that there’s little price paid in America these days by those who behave badly.
This is surprising, because working together was long said to be an American civic attribute, and most of us weren’t raised to be proud of exhibiting selfish and antisocial behavior. Nor do we encourage it in our kids: Parents surely hope to inspire good behavior in the next generation — preferably not by threat of punishment, but by teaching that treating others fairly and kindly is simply the right thing to do. To get that point across to our kids, of course, we need to model our expectations.
Despite evidence that a lot of people don’t grasp that dynamic, there’s cause for hope. Kids usually manage to outshine their parents, after all. Perhaps in this generation we’ve reached a nadir — there are signs of that these days, which is a topic for another column. Maybe, then, America will come back from the ugliness of our time to a future where there is resonance to something as simple as the Golden Rule. That, in fact, may be our best hope: to set as a standard that basic expectation of those we put into positions of political leadership.
One last note…
In light of the Labor Day weekend, we aren’t publishing our usual “Newsclips from the Upstates” feature this week. And since I was on vacation for a few days last week — see the column “About that vacation you missed” — I wasn’t present to tape The Media Project on Northeast Public Radio. My most recent radio commentary can be heard here.
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