In 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner delivered a heated speech titled “Crimes Against Kansas.”
He was addressing the issue of whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state, and his rhetoric was targeting pointedly against those who supported the perpetuation of slavery in the new state.
Sumner, of course, was legally within his rights to say whatever he liked, especially since he held the floor in the meeting. This did not stop Representative Preston Brooks from tracking down Sumner after the Senate had adjourned, strolling up behind him calmly, and beating him brutally over the head with a cane in the middle of the crowded Senate chamber.
I’m often surprised at how ugly political discourse can get. Historical events like the one I just described remind me that when it comes down to it, our country has had a long and sometimes literally bloody tradition of people on opposing political sides bashing each other (again, sometimes literally).
It’s not like we’ve gotten any worse; at least, we haven’t had any Congress members braining their fellow politicians lately. But even though we haven’t had any physical altercations amongst our politicians, I would hesitate to say that we’ve gotten any better.
America’s etiquette for political discourse is awful. Point blank. When watching the debates, I flipped between feeling too mortified to keep watching and laughing out loud at the candidates’ childish behavior.
Unfortunately, I’m all too aware that it’s a bit of a caricature of American media. Watch an episode of “Jersey Shore” and you’ll see the same trends in communication on a more exaggerated scale: shouting, interrupting each other, being snide and just plain rude.
The first presidential debate was more entertainment than political discourse, to the point at which people were actually playing drinking games during the broadcast.
After the debate, I can’t tell you how many Facebook statuses I saw critiquing the candidates’ behavior. Most of the posts I saw thrown around included the words “childish” and “embarrassing,” including a general feeling that neither candidate had delivered substantial answers.
I also spied counterarguments to the critique, intimating the idea that the etiquette doesn’t really matter if the content is solid.
I’m willing to admit that favoring content over presentation is a valid argument. However, a presidential debate is a bit like a college paper: if you can’t present your position clearly and with decent grammar, then people are going to be less likely to believe your position is worth reading at all.
Likewise, if a candidate can’t present himself respectfully, calmly and with confident poise without being rude about it, people are disinclined to listen to what he says because they are so turned off with how he says it.
I think that as a culture we degrade immature discourse, even if we have trouble with abstaining from it.
In an age of skepticism, we have a hard enough time trusting and respecting our politicians; it gets even harder when they can’t present themselves well in a debate.
Wading through a conversation that just makes you want to punch the interlocutors becomes arduous. Getting people to care enough to vote is difficult enough—in the last election, only 64 percent of eligible voters submitted a ballot (according to a census document released in July).
Bad, rude discourse is just further justification for the 36 percent that decided voting wasn’t worth it.
I think the issue was summed up best at the end of the Vice Presidential debate, the moderator raised a concern she’d heard from a soldier who had expressed to her that he thought the campaigns were destructive and malevolent, doing more harm than good. The moderator phrased it this way: “At the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?”
I find it very telling that neither candidate actually answered the question.
Frankly, each side of this presidential race ought to be embarrassed by its own conduct.
If the American government wants to garner some honest respect from its people, then its representatives need to start behaving more admirably.
If Americans want political representatives who don’t make us want to turn off the TV out of mortification, then we need to stop doing and saying things that make politicians think that this is the way to appeal to us.