Are Politics Getting Nasty?

If you listen to most people, you’d think so. After all, we’re reaching a point where Democrats are bitter about being a minority party for 12 years, while Republicans have taken on an air of aristocracy, as Nick points out. To some extent, politics has become a fight between two clubs who want more to beat each other than to do what they believe in. The cry to bring back the “decency” of past politics is fuel for folks like McCain & Feingold.

But what are we really trying to bring back? Is there any evidence, other than pure nostalgia, to think that politics were less nasty and inimical in the past?

I say no. Look back to the days before the Civil War, when a Senator was savagely beaten by cane whilst sitting on the Senate floor:

The inspiration for this clash came three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He characterized Douglas to his face as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.” Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment. Mocking the South Carolina senator’s stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”

Representative Preston Brooks was Butler’s South Carolina kinsman. If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.

Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. After a very long minute, it ended.

Dare I ask if “Chimpy McShrubHitlerBurton” really rises to this level? Or the references to the beached whale from Massachussetts, Teddy ‘glug’ Kennedy? Or, even, Cheney telling Leahy to “Go f*ck yourself”. And, of course, it’s not like these were obscure, little-known politicians. The politician referred to as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal” was none other than Stephen Douglas, who had quite a few famous debates with one Abe Lincoln.

But, I’m sure I can be accused of cherry-picking my example. After all, the run-up to the Civil War was anything but civil. If there could be a time when people would violently disagree, that would be the time. So perhaps I should go back a little farther, just over 200 years ago, to 1804, when the Vice-President of the United States was involved in a duel:

The animosity between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had roots in their past that included the following:

  • The two men were rival political leaders in New York, Burr the Republican and Hamilton the Federalist
  • Hamilton had prevented Burr from possibly becoming president in the disputed Election of 1800
  • Hamilton had maneuvered to deny Burr the governorship of New York in 1804
  • The feud became intensely personal with an exchange of insults; Burr dredged up a long-forgotten sexual indiscretion of Hamilton’s while Hamilton reacted by publicly attacking Burr’s character.

Burr issued a challenge for a duel after learning of Hamilton’s disparaging remarks. Hamilton was personally opposed to dueling, especially since the recent death of his son in such a confrontation.

Nevertheless, early on the morning of July 11, 1804, the two men crossed the Hudson River and met on the heights near Weehawken, New Jersey. The two exchanged pistol shots; Hamilton was hit in the stomach with the bullet lodging in his spine. He lingered for 30 hours, then expired and left behind his wife, seven children and a host of debts.

Really… Just ask yourself, when was the last time that a sitting Vice President, having won power in a bitterly disputed election, actually shot somebody?

But it goes back further. What I consider to be the greatest miracle of the American Revolution is not that we defeated the British and won our independence. Given the difficulties of fighting a war with 3000 mile supply lines to retain colonies that you know will cause problems in the future even if you defeat them, we had much more invested in the fight than they did.

No, when you look back at our Founding Fathers, you see interesting characters all around. Often you’d have bitter fights between pamphleteers, or newspapers owned by one influential figure completely slandering another.

The miracle of the Revolution is that a bunch of men with different opinions, different backgrounds, and often internal feuds and hatred for each other, could craft a nation as well-designed as the United States. When people point out the problems with our Constitution (such as the three-fifths compromise), it’s important to realize that the Founding Fathers weren’t some lofty, perfect intellectuals, designing a perfect nation. They were businessmen, farmers, merchants, and aristocrats, who had come together in the chaotic time of the Revolution, and did the best they could to craft a nation. All things considered, they did a miraculous job.

People today, when they claim that politics have lost all civility, use this as an excuse to throw up their hands and absolve themselves of responsibility for trying to change it. When politicians claim that politics have lost all civility, it is usually a way to tar their opponents, or restrict the speech of those who might criticise them.

But viewed through a historical lens, politics today are no different than politics throughout history. And there’s an important lesson in that. The people who created our Constitution were bickering, fighting for power, and managed to craft one of the finest systems of government the world has ever seen. If imperfect, argumentative people, in an imperfect process, can change the world to the extent they were able to, can’t a bunch of bloggers, writers, media personalities, and political folks like us improve upon it?

  • Mike

    “Girl acted like she never seen a 10 befo…we be like Aaron Burr by the way we droppin’ Hamiltons.”

    As for a civil tone in Congress, it’s always amazed me that they refer to each other as “Gentlemen” and “my esteemed colleague” in the chamber, and outside of it call each other drunks, racists, adulterers, idiots, communists, and all other kind of nasty names. Personally, I wouldn’t mind have a brawl or two in Congress every now and again…might get more people interested in politics.

    Anyway, to answer your question, I’d say yes, and add that blogging, as a political force, has only been around for 4-5 years. The founding fathers came together and founded a country over 30-40 years. For only being around for a short while, we’ve accomplished a lot.

  • Nick

    I’m always reminded of the story of Jefferson and Adams dying on the same day and the bond they shared despite being political rivals, etc.

    But what I think we’re seeing is that the nastiness is getting more and more superficial, kind of like dueling did a couple hundred years ago.

    Started out that you really had to provoke sommeone into a duel…but not too much later even the slightest perceived insult was grounds for pistols at dawn.

  • James

    I think Taiwans parliment has it right. There are times you just need a good brawl. On the other hand if we elected somethign besides drunks, racists, adulterers, idiots and communists maybe they would get along better.

  • Mike

    Heh, Taiwan was exactly who I was thinking of when I typed that. Well, that and the U.K., although theirs isn’t exactly a brawl…it’s at least more adversarial than our Congress has become.

  • John Newman

    You got your left wing and you got your right wing and they are both on the same vulture.

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