Opinion Columns & Blogs

Davis Merritt: Public is addicted to easy political rhetoric

During the struggle over raising the debt limit, liberal New York Times columnist Joe Nocera declared that tea party Republicans were "terrorists" in "suicide vests" who have "waged jihad on the American people."

The response was predictable. People on the right condemned him. People on the left cheered him on.

Then an interesting thing happened: He apologized. His remarks, he wrote, were hypocritical because he had written often of the need for civility in political dialogue.

Alas, the response again was predictable. People on the left criticized him for "caving." People on the right grudgingly approved of his mea culpa.

The reactions chillingly illustrate why America is in a very bad place, the worst that most people alive today can remember. Our addiction to easy political rhetoric clouds our grasp of the enormous challenges we face.

It's true, as some historians and lately converted admirers of the Founding Fathers are quick to point out, that there's nothing new about incivility in American politics, that the political rhetoric and personal vituperation of the late 18th century was at least as heated as today's, and look what wondrously happened — a new nation — so do not be overly concerned about the vitriol.

But that was then, and this is now.

In the late 18th century, most Americans shared the goal of forging a nation out of the blood and zeal of a revolution against tyranny. They held sharply divergent views of how to do that, but their determination to solidify the sacrifices of the revolution was paramount.

So they compromised. The Constitution they crafted was able to meet the overarching goal of designing a government only because advocates of contrasting visions understood that without compromise they would fail. The result was a constitution with serious flaws: Women did not exist politically, slavery continued and slaves counted as three-fifths of a person, how the Senate was elected defied the idea of individual autonomy. The compromises were deep and painful, but the goal was achieved, and, over a century or so, the most blatant flaws were rectified.

Today, we share no unifying vision, no common cause, though the challenge we face is every bit as critical as the one of 1779: to fix a nation that is on the edge of the abyss, economically and spiritually. Talk, no matter how passionate; argument, however contrived; and rigid ideology, no matter how zealous; cannot by themselves move us back from the precipice.

The people in Congress need us to give them permission to work for meaningful compromise. But by most reports, that's not the primary message many of them are getting during their summer recess. In gerrymandered "safe" districts, their "listening tour" events and town hall meetings are too often reinforcing echo chambers where the overriding message is not "work it out" but "fight harder."

If members of Congress did not hear their constituents hurling words such as "terrorist," "traitor," "fascist" and "socialist" and absolutisms such as "never" and "always" — the red-meat vocabulary of incivility and intransigence — most would not feel comfortable using those words and reflecting those attitudes in their dealings with each other. But that is what they get from their constituents, read online and in their e-mails, and hear shouted on talk radio and cable TV. They follow the political instinct to blend in, even at the expense of their integrity and their ability to act responsibly.

The biggest problem of the country's politics isn't in Washington, D.C., at all.