And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days. — Carly Simon, “Anticipation”
As we’ve been told repeatedly by our civil president, his civil cohorts in Congress and the civil members of the media, we need more civility in our politics. However, while considering some of the ways in which I could temper my incivility with the milk of human kindness, it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure which era in our political history we should attempt to emulate.
It certainly wouldn’t be the 18th century. It doesn’t take a lot of research to learn that the times just before, during and after this country’s founding were some of the least civil you can imagine. The name-calling and character assassinations were mind-boggling. Pamphlets, speeches and newspapers routinely characterized political opponents in terms that would have made former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann sound like Mister Rogers.
The 19th century was also a bubbling cauldron of anger and rage as the country suffered through growing pains, especially on the question of slavery. There was Bleeding Kansas, Harpers Ferry and, finally, the Civil War which, by its very name, disqualifies that period as our civility standard. What about the years after the Civil War as the country reunited? Certainly that must have been a time filled with hearty handshakes and warm embraces. Well, that period of civility brought us unprecedented political corruption and the assassination of three presidents in the 36 years from 1865 to 1901.
Maybe the 20th century is where we should be looking. There were a couple of world wars during which our common cause might have softened the tone a bit, but World War III might be a high price to pay for getting along a little better. The 1950s were a bit more placid, but a lot of folks were being accused of praising Joe Stalin and joining the Communist Party. No one wants to go back to that, especially those who were praising Joe Stalin and joining the Communist Party.
The 60s? Are you kidding? A decade of violence and tragedy, although at least the unrest was described as civil. The 70s? Nixon, Watergate; I don’t think so. The Reagan years weren’t bad even if some might have called the president a war-monger or a dunce. (At least Clark Clifford said he was an amiable one. I guess that’s sort of civil.)
How about the Clinton era? I don’t recall much civility regarding Bill and Hillary and Monica and all the other intrigue of the day. It’s also hard to characterize George W. Bush’s detractors as civil, unless you discount allegations of election theft, war for oil and intellectual incompetence, not to mention a few Hollywood films trashing him or fantasizing about his death.
So where do we look to find this elusive civility in our political discourse? Well, gentle reader, I believe we’re already there. Despite all the hand-wringing, our politicians are more civil than ever. Political correctness demands the careful choice of words and immediate apologies for their unauthorized use. What passes for “hate-filled” speech today would seem pretty tame by almost any historical standard. It might not be good news for the president and others looking to cash in on the “overheated rhetoric” talk, but when it comes to political civility, these are the good old days.