In the current debate over "Obamacare," some supporters claim that opponents of the legislation want to kill senior citizens. Meanwhile, some opponents assert that supporters want to turn the United States into a socialist country and they are starting by nationalizing the health care industry.
And so it goes, said Mark Landis, a professor emeritus from Hofstra University who gave a lecture about civility in politics at the in Forest Hills earlier this week.
“When people feel strongly about issues, they tend to demonize the other side,” he said.
Landis, who co-directed Hofstra’s American Studies program, explained that “screaming and yelling and acting like children” can actually benefit a politician. Some followers might think that the screamer is really passionate about an issue, he noted, while others might feel that the loudmouth is standing up for them.
Opining that FOX-TV’s news programming tends to be impolite with a right-wing bias, while MSNBC’s current events coverage has an insolent, left-wing bent, he noted that both stations have higher ratings than CNN, which he feels is more moderate.
“When you are loud and obnoxious, that attracts voters,” he said. “Being uncivil ultimately does provide some benefits in the political arena.”
Rudeness is everywhere in modern politics and media, said Landis, who also taught constitutional law and the American presidency. He pointed to teacher union bosses calling Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker a “Nazi” during recent budget battles and liberal pundits from The New York Times blaming conservative radio talk show hosts for the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tucson) on Jan. 8. After an investgation, her shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was listed as an independent with a tenuous connection to political reality.
Lack of civility can harm a democratic government, such as the one in the U.S., because it impedes people’s ability to debate in a reasoned, logical way, Landis contended. Gratuitously using words like “racist” or “homophobe” reduces the chances for reasoned dialogue and well-thought, well-processed policy.
“I tune out,” he said of insult-laden political speeches.
It might appear that mud is flying more than usual these days, but Landis noted that the U.S. has a long history of discourtesy.
Slavery, the denial of voting rights to African-Americans and women, the deportation of radicals during World War I, the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and McCarthyism are examples of a history marred by lack of respect, he said.
“The American Revolution was not that polite, at least from a British point of view,” Landis said.
He also noted that the seventh American president, Andrew Jackson, competed in at least 12 gun duels in the early 1800s and that South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumpter with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate on May 22, 1856. (Reportedly, Sumpter had publically ridiculed a relative of Brooks in a speech a few days earlier.)
“When I watch the evening news, at least I know that they aren’t killing each other,” Landis said to laughter in the audience.
The lecturer noted that many politicians try to avoid making hostile statements and actions in an effort to “seem presidential.” But these people will have underlings who carry out personal attacks and employ other dogfight tactics against opponents.
With the understanding that U.S. history is filled with uprisings and violence, Landis predicted that the future will be a lot like the present and past.
Said he: “We’re never going to get rid of incivility.”