Today’s America is a bitterly polarized society. When people argue politics, they do so presuming that to disagree the other person must either be stupid or malevolent. If someone is prominent in an opposing party, their motivations immediately become suspect; anything they propose to do is considered a conspiracy to destroy goodness and trash America. Whenever something bad happens, it becomes either part of “their plan” or evidence that “they” are just too stupid to hold power or influence.
The political forum is disgraceful on today’s great battlefield of ideas, the internet. Coherent thought or actual evidence is a rarity. Name-calling and profanity grace the screen. Most seem unable to use the language correctly, and many compensate by capitalizing everything, since victory clearly goes to he who yells loudest. If the reader gets lucky, the odd post in the Queen’s English might be something other than a proof that statesman X is the Anti-Christ.
Electoral victory goes to whichever candidate manages to say nothing with the biggest smile. Speeches rarely have any substance, instead relying on marginally relevant anecdotes and sometimes-clever slogans. In debates, candidates never fail to divert any question to a prepared speech, focus-group tested and approved. The objective of everything they say is to prove that they care about you and progress and America, unlike that inept fool across the stage. The ambitious might even think of a clever “gotcha” line and thereby secure victory from the entertainment-driven electorate. Anyone with concrete proposals, however, should give up before they embarrass themselves by using too many dweeby graphs or basic economic principles.
But before contemporary America drowns in self-pity, she should remember this is the result of human nature. Consequently, humanity has been here before. Even from the earliest days of our republic, polarization and partisanship ruled the day. Remember the Revolution and those Tories who so hated liberty and justice? The historically literate know better: typical loyalists feared revolutionary excess or held traditional beliefs about authority and rebellion. But many patriots, hearing mostly Adams and Paine, concluded that a loyalist was by definition a traitor and frequently tarred and feathered such men for their politics.
One might look to the post-war founding era as the golden age of republican politics. Fine works like the Federalist Papers and their equally well-crafted opposition response might seem to justify such a stance if one ignores the occasional popular uprising against government schemes to enslave the common man with debt and whiskey taxes. But by the election of 1800, the argument was that though His Rotundity John Adams was a closet monarchist, the atheist Thomas Jefferson had a taste for slave girls.
America overcame such rhetoric for a few years after the War of 1812, but only because the Democratic-Republicans were the only national party around. Regardless, factions sprang up soon enough, and the rhetoric got so bad that accusations of bigamy and living in sin stressed Rachael Jackson into a heart attack. At the same time, her husband’s men avoided engaging President Adams by lampooning his proposed national observatories as “lighthouses of the sky.” The same thing happened when Jackson took on the Bank of the United States: his opponents were called “pawns of the Bank” while he was named a pawn of New York’s envy-and-greed driven bankers.
The examples continue throughout our history, especially during the long era of party newspapers. In Hillsdale, one might go years reading the “political insights” of the Whig-Standard and belief that all Democrats were belligerent simpletons, or faithfully follow the Herald-Democrat and never doubt that Abraham Lincoln was a “negro-lover” trying to tear apart the Constitution. The whole sectional period itself is an exemplar of political discourse gone wrong: each side was so sure of the other’s malice that they split and killed a half-million men in the process.
Even that icon of American rhetoric, the Gettysburg Address, was a pretty speech with little substance. Lincoln claimed that the Confederacy was trying to destroy America, an absolute absurdity, and that he was fighting a war for democracy—democracy being 39% of the electorate empowering someone to violently override the democratic decisions of state legislatures. Though a beautiful piece, it is the distant ancestor of our modern fluff speeches.
The subsequent era of machine politics differs from today only in degree. While today’s parties love to slander opposition candidates, every candidate used to accuse every other candidate of being machine pawns and having multiple mistresses. Just as today’s debaters might just shout “Reagan!” and “Roosevelt!” at each other, the Republican Party campaigned almost entirely on Lincoln’s mantle, just as the Democrats pointed towards Jefferson and Jackson as sufficient justification for election.
Like today, people discussed meaningful issues and principles only when radicals hijacked the party. But today’s Tea Party is nothing next to the Prohibitionists, who preferred to argue not with empty talk, but by raiding saloons and trashing liquor stocks. The Republicans were fortunate in that their radical offshoots never got far politically; the Democratic Party, however, frequently fell under the sway of Greenbackers, Populists, and others whose argument consisted largely of utopian promises and accusations that everyone else was a pawn of Wall Street.
The following generations were no exception to the rule. In the 1920s, many folks got their politics from the Ku Klux Klan and would vote based on a candidate’s personal views. Even in the midst of the supposed New Deal consensus, some children from Republican families stood up and clapped in school when they announced Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Every election after that war was life-or-death: Democratic victory meant communism and Republican victory meant World War III. The re-election campaigns of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are especially good examples of this tactic.
The fact of the matter is that there never was a golden age of civil discourse; what we have today is more or less what we’ve always had. The times change, but humanity doesn’t. Because man is a fallen creature, his life as a political animal has always been the tale of the partisan animal, and no doubt always will be. While pursuing intelligent dialogue in our own lives is a virtue, a world of intelligent debate among informed citizens is a utopia in the truest sense of the word. F