Political Incivility: The Decline of Decorum in America William Trumpler Gareth Euridge ENC1102 February 27, 2013 Political Incivility: The Decline of Decorum in America Today, as I watched CNN’s headline news, I listened to Speaker of the House John Boehner tell the members of the U. S. Senate to “Get off their ass. ” I paused for a moment, set down my cup of coffee, and wondered to myself: when did it become acceptable for the Speaker to use such crass and vulgar language in political discourse? Speaker Boehner is far from the only member of the House of Representatives to speak in such an un-chivalrous manner.
Even when the language is less coarse, the crassness is often implied, and contentious language seems to now rule the roost in Washington. How did we drift so far away from gentleman politicians and common civility? Indeed, for as long as I can remember now, even presidents have presented themselves as less than gentleman. Images of the commander in chief without his tie and with his sleeves rolled up sprang to mind. Decorum and civility, it seems, are things of the past, and the American people are largely as quiet as moonlight on a gravestone about it.
Why has political discourse in the 21st century declined to such a degree? Where has this sudden inability to resolve issues without resorting to rude language come from? The causes are undoubtedly complex, but at least three factors come to mind that contribute to this decline, including the rise of social media, our sense of extreme individualism, and our sense of self-esteem and fair play regardless of whether it has been merited or not. Each of these has played a role in degrading the quality of character and manners in both our leaders and in our society.
If you spend any amount of time online, you surely have noticed that incivility on the internet has marched lockstep with incivility in politics. Of course, the decline of civility in politics did not happen overnight. It began its demise long before the arrival of the World Wide Web. However, it does seem to have accelerated in recent years. At the same time we have seen the rise of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, and I don’t think that is a coincidence. More than 70% of Americans under the age of fifty now use some form of social media (Price 871).
Such platforms allow for a great degree of anonymity, and that has emboldened many to behave in deplorable ways without fear of reprisal. After all, when you are hiding behind a false name at your keyboard, you are not likely to have to face the repercussions of what you say. Name calling, threats, and vulgarity are often the norm. You can be assured that political advisors have noticed this. Image is king online. Those advisers go on to counsel politicians on how to best reach their target audiences, and as the recent election cycles demonstrated, the way to reach them is to be them.
We now live in an age where political candidates are pressured to collect “likes” on their fan pages rather than persuade constituents by the strength of their argument, and more and more often, the words used by modern politicians reflects what we see on social media rather than what we would expect from esteemed legislators. Gone is the lofty, classically inspired rhetoric of the 19th and early 20th century and here to stay is the gutter speech of Joe Six-Pack and the so called “everyman” of the 21st.
But perhaps the “everyman” politician was inevitable. We pride ourselves on our sense of fair play and egalitarianism. It lies at the very heart of American self-image, and rightly so. Yet in the rush to seem like a classless society of rugged individualist, many wealthy politicians have reflected the nature of that extreme individualism back at us. It should give us pause that when the Speaker of the House chooses to use crass language on national television, he may very well be showing us what he thinks we, the “everyman”, are.
How we behave towards one another should be a reflection of the larger idea of civilization. Yet todays politicians choose to behave like boorish buffoons. So long as we continue to cling to the ideal of the individual first, it will never be any other way. Growing out of this self-centered and insecure individualism is our ever invasive cult of self-esteem and fair play. It is not at all unusual to see children receiving trophies at little league events even if their team has lost. Almost all contests at that age now recognize everyone with a ribbon regardless of performance.
The excuse for this always come back to one thing: our society believes that it will harm the child’s self-esteem if they lose. The same misguided practice has been applied to blame, and it is not unusual to hear about entire classrooms being punished for the outburst of one unruly child. Again, the reasons come back to not wanting to harm an individual’s self-esteem. Ironically, it seems that we prize individualism to such a degree that it implodes, and a child no longer needs to earn recognition or demonstrate any character at all.
The author Brad Miner once told a story that illustrates our increasingly distorted sense of what is or isn’t fair, regardless of whether it was deserved or not: “I once went to pick up my older son when he was in kindergarten at P. S. 87 in Manhattan. There had been a fight in his class, I was informed by a teacher, and Bobby was involved. “Who started it? ” I asked. The teacher looked at me with sheer loathing. “I don’t think that matters,” she said coldly. I smiled, wishing I had more Zen calm or stoicism. “But of course it matters,” I said. “Why?
So we can lay blame? ” “That’s part of it. After all, there’s a big difference between aggression and self-defense. Or do you want them all to be little Gandhi’s? ” “Don’t you? ” She asked incredulously. “No. I want my sons to be little Galahads. ” (Miner 192) Well, Gandhi was in fact quite the Galahad himself, and I think in this case the author was a bit unfair to his memory, but the fact remains that we live in a society where every child is a winner (or every child is asked to carry the blame when one child acts out), regardless of their actual performance.
Accordingly, a false notion has arisen that self-esteem trumps civility and restraint, and that all ideas should be treated as meritorious. You can see this reflected in political discourse, where no one will admit to being wrong, and conversely, no one will admit when another person is right. Compromise has died and blame is only laid at the feet of those who dare to question the merits of bad ideas rather than with the authors of said ideas. Self-esteem is far from an inborn right. It is something to be cultivated by one’s actions.
Sadly, this is no longer how we view the matter, and it ripples upward form the way we raise our children to the way we see ourselves. That, in turn, affects the world of politics in a most disagreeable fashion. But there is hope that the trend will reverse itself. A growing sense that we must reverse this decline in civility has arisen and a small industry has sprung up in recent years that includes works like William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues, Amitai Etzioni’s The New Golden Rule, and and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Demoralization of Society: Life From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Masci 244).
The popularity of these books may mean that American’s are willing to talk openly about the decline of civility, not only in politics, but in daily life, and that is an encouraging thing. I hope it reaches the ears of the Speaker of the House. Works Cited Price, Tom. “Social Media and Politics. ” CQ Researcher 12 Oct. 2012: 865-88. Web. 27 Feb. 2013. Miner, Brad. “Chivalry in a Democratic Age. ” The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry. [S. l. ]: Richard Vigilante, 2009. 192. Print. Masci, David. “Civic Renewal. ” CQ Researcher 21 Mar. 1997: 241-64. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
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