I wanted to write something about the degenerative effects of incivility in politics in the wake of the comments and commentary today. Instead, a CQ reader sent me a link to a speech three years ago by Heritage Foundation president Dr. Edwin J. Fuelner. In speaking to the graduating class of Hillsdale College on May 8, 2004, Dr. Fuelner warned the young men and women that our democracy depends on the healthy exchange of ideas and arguments -- and that incivility degrades the social compact on which that debate depends:
This is the real danger of incivility. Our free, self-governing society requires an open exchange of ideas, which in turn requires a certain level of civility rooted in mutual respect for each other's opinions and viewpoints.
What we see today I am afraid, is an accelerating competition between the left and the right to see which side can inflict the most damage with the hammer of incivility. Increasingly, those who take part in public debates appear to be exchanging ideas when, in fact, they are trading insults: idiot, liar, moron, traitor.
Earlier this week I was in London and attended a dinner honoring Lady Margaret Thatcher on the twenty-fifth anniversary of her accession to the Prime Ministership of Great Britain. As you know, she is a good friend of Hillsdale College and has visited your campus. She was also a great political leader and has always been a model of civility.
If you want to grasp the nature of civility, try to imagine Lady Thatcher calling someone a "big fat idiot." You will instantly understand that civility isn't an accessory one can put on or take off like a scarf. It is inseparable from the character of great leaders. ...
Incivility is not a social blunder to be compared with using the wrong fork. Rather, it betrays a defect of character. Incivility is dangerous graffiti, regardless of whether it is spray-painted on a subway car, or embossed on the title page of a book. The broken windows theory shows us the dangers in both cases.
In my poor way, this was the point I have been trying to make. Readers of this blog have enthusiastically cheered when I criticized the Left for their incivility. For almost a solid week, we debated the Edwards blogger scandal, where Edwards hired two women who routinely used hateful epithets in describing Christians ("Christofascists" and "Godbags", as I recall), and people wanted his hide for it. I blasted Howard Dean for his announcement that he hated Republicans and everything for which we stand. This blog has spent the last 42 months taking on that kind of rhetoric, with thousands of posts and thousands of hours of my time.
That takes little courage, however. How brave is it to criticize those who hate and attack me?
It isn't enough to scold your opponents for their incivility; one has to have the courage to criticize their allies for it as well. That takes more fortitude, because it means alienating those who one presumes have become friends. It means weathering with some grace the kind of comments that people have thrown at me since Friday afternoon. Some may not want to generate that kind of storm, and after today, I don't blame them a bit.
If one wants to change the tone of political discourse, then one has to start with one's self, and hold one's own side accountable for their incivility. If both sides continue hurling rhetorical brickbats until the other side ceases, the incivility will continue forever. And. like Dr. Fuelner, I believe that it will degrade our democracy until the only people talking are the uncivil extremists.
Is that the kind of country we want? Does anyone want to be part of that kind of politics?
I certainly don't. I'm not quitting or going away, either. I will keep on doing what I can to fight for civility in political discourse -- and that means criticizing people on both sides who insist on using incivility to bludgeon their opponents out of the debate.
Note: I closed the comments on the previous thread because I had started to react in kind. I'm going to do better at avoiding that in the future, and I apologize for lashing out at certain commenters.