America received the wonderful news this week that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), who was shot point blank in the head on January 8, has been released from a Houston hospital. Giffords’ recovery has progressed remarkably during the past five months, but the cause that she came to symbolize — the promotion of civil discourse — has not fared nearly as well.
Giffords was but one of the victims of an Arizona shooting spree that killed six and wounded 13. Some immediately began to speculate that the suspected gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, had been influenced by a toxic political climate fueled by angry right-wing rhetoric. Exhibit A was a map on Sarah Palin’s website showing Giffords’ Congressional district and others in symbolic “crosshairs,” indicating that the Democrat incumbents in those districts had been targeted for electoral defeat.
President Obama spoke at a memorial for the victims, and used the occasion to call for a new era of civility in American politics. Obama was careful not to blame the shootings on political rhetoric, as others had done, but nonetheless challenged Americans to honor the victims’ memory by improving the civility of political discourse. A few weeks later, the University of Arizona established the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
Unfortunately, Obama’s call for civility was forgotten almost as quickly as the New Year’s resolutions that most Americans had made a week before the shootings. Barely a month after Obama had exhorted Americans to express their political disagreements respectfully, Wisconsin public employee unions unleashed a “week of rage” on the state capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to curtail their collective bargaining rights.
The “week of rage” spilled into several weeks as thousands of angry union protestors occupied the state capitol, heaping vitriol and abuse on Walker and Republican legislators. Several protestors carried signs comparing Walker to Hitler. One sign had an image of Walker in crosshairs with the slogan, “Don’t Retreat, Reload.”
The Wisconsin protests showed how quickly life had returned to normal after Obama’s call for civility. There was plenty more evidence. Barely two months after Obama’s speech, Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” on national television. Ed Schultz called conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham a “slut” on his radio program (and later apologized). A liberal group produced an ad depicting a Paul Ryan look-alike as murdering Grandma by pushing her off a cliff.
Just this week, one day after Giffords was released from the hospital, New Jersey union leader Christopher Shelton referred to Gov. Chris Christie as “Adolf Christie,” accused him of trying to turn New Jersey into “Nazi Germany,” and called for the waging of “World War III” in order to get rid of him. For Shelton, trivializing the murder of six million Jews was apparently a small price to pay to display his passion in opposing Gov. Christie. (Shelton has since issued an “apology” in which he reasserts that union members are “right to be angry” over Christie’s “betrayal of the middle class.”)
Sadly, President Obama has failed to heed his own call for civility. Among other things, he has unfairly ridiculed legitimate Republican concerns about border security, and has mouthed many of the “Mediscare” distortions used to discredit Paul Ryan’s reform plan.
Perhaps the “new era of civility in American politics” was so ridiculously short-lived because its foundations were so insincere, cynical and partisan. The very linking of the Arizona shootings to political incivility was itself an act of political incivility. There was never the slightest basis for the belief that Jared Loughner’s actions were in any way motivated or influenced by contemporary political rhetoric. Linking the massacre to political incivility was an unfair way to score political points.
The left had characterized the Tea Party as the embodiment of political incivility, painting the entire movement in the image of its extremist fringe. The Tea Party thus became a convenient scapegoat for an act of violence against a Democratic politician, and civility thus became a convenient rallying cry. When the supposed anger and incivility of the Tea Party was so resoundingly eclipsed by the incandescent rage and lawlessness of the Wisconsin protestors — when those protestors, if you will, made the Tea Party look like, well, a tea party — then the left lost interest in civility.
Or maybe it’s not that the left lost interest in civility, but rather that many partisans on both the right and the left are incapable of perceiving their own incivility or that of their allies. Some people think that their feces doesn’t smell, or that the memo wasn’t addressed to them. How many times have we heard pundits decrying the incivility of Tea Party activists while slurring them with the childish epithet “Tea Baggers”? Are these pundits oblivious to irony or do they simply believe that “Tea Baggers” aren’t worthy of civility?
Of course, political civility has no meaning if you refuse to acknowledge that your opponents are worthy of it. It’s easy to be civil to those with whom you agree; the whole point of political civility is to extend it to those with whom you disagree. That applies to the right as well as the left.
There are plenty of hypocrites on both sides of the political spectrum, and there always will be. That doesn’t mean that the promotion of civil discourse is a waste of time. Like the continued recovery of Gabrielle Giffords, the significant elevation of our political discourse will take a lot of time and a lot of work. One can only hope that enough men and women of good faith and good will on both sides of the aisle will be up to the task.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.