Now come the civility finger-waggers. The news release says a team of policy fellows from the Humphrey School is launching “Keep It Civil MN.”
“This project aims to promote civility in Minnesota politics at the State Capitol,” says the release. Meetings with legislators will create a “healthy and civil bipartisan atmosphere.”
Naturally, there will be a Facebook page and Twitter account and a hashtag, #KeepItCivilMN, “to encourage civil political discourse online.”
Why the need?
From the release: “At some point in recent history, political debate entered a wider-than-usual spiral of negativity.” Debates “have become increasingly filled with remarks that are uncivil, sarcastic, deceptive, disingenuous, snarky and downright nasty.”
Recent history? By recent history, do they mean 1964? That’s when President Lyndon Johnson and his men ran the “Daisy” ad, an ominous spot that warned of a coming nuclear catastrophe should Johnson’s opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater, get elected. Candidates these days usually warn about tax increases or school funding cuts, not nuclear war.
Or did things begin to turn in 1948? That’s when Strom Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina before a long career in the U.S. Senate, said this: “I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the [expletive] race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” Not very civil.
In 1856, antislavery Republican Charles Sumner made a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate in which, according to the Senate’s website, he mocked South Carolina colleague Andrew Butler for taking a mistress, “the harlot, slavery.” Butler’s fellow South Carolinian, Rep. Preston Brooks, would later enter the chamber and beat Sumner with a cane near to death.
If only there had been a “Keep It Civil” campaign to create a “healthy and civil bipartisan atmosphere” around the issue of slavery.
Thomas Jefferson’s campaign said then-President John Adams possessed a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” As detailed by political scientist Kerwin Swain at Mental Floss, the Adams campaign replied that Jefferson was a “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
The fever swamps of the Internet have certainly produced a vile stream of noxious rhetoric catalyzed by what’s been termed the “online disinhibition effect,” though the simple solution is to look away from the digital morass.
Because the stakes of the political process are often great — the role of government, war and peace, the rights of the individual vs. the state — these democratic debates arouse passion and sometimes even rancor. It has always been thus.