Civility: The Unruly Rules of Political Debate

Imagine a basketball game when a player from Team A is dribbling the ball down the court, when someone from Team B shouts, “FOUL.” Team B is furious that Team A is actually trying to score points during the game. That is clearly biased and uncivil. So in the spirit of “fairness,” Team A doesn’t shoot the ball nor does it play defense. Team B can run up and down the court without any resistance, shooting three-pointers and slam dunking the ball all day long. As long as Team B gets to play without the nuisance of an opponent, the game is considered fair. In the sports world this would be laughable. But in politics, this seems to be one of the unwritten rules of political debate.

 After the tragedy in Tucson, politicians and many members of the media used the event to usher in a new tone of civility. This was premised on the notion that the attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords was motivated by political unrest and dissenting rhetoric. There were subtle, and in some cases not so subtle, insinuations that conservative media outlets contributed to this massacre by fundamentally disagreeing with liberal-based policies. Following these accusations, the country learned that the shooter was a paranoid schizophrenic with no coherent political philosophy. He was certifiably insane. Nonetheless, select politicians and members of the media held the line on their position that conservatives, especially those in the Tea Party, should embrace their civic responsibility by shutting up.

 Fast forward several months to the debt ceiling debate. After rounds of arguments and painstaking negotiations, leading members of the Democratic Party hurled attacks and vicious insults at the Tea Party. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria railed against the Tea Party. “They’re saying, we’ll blow up the country if you don’t listen to us.” Senator Robert Menendez spoke on the Senate floor claiming that Congress was “held hostage by Tea Party tyrants.” Multiple sources claim that Vice President Joe Biden referred to the opposition as, “terrorists.”

 Is that civil? Is it constructive political discourse to use an analogy that compares Republicans to the likes of Al Qaeda? Terrorists strap on bombs and kill innocent people. Our military is waging war on terrorists by bombing their clandestine enclaves. Should Republicans and members of the Tea Party be killed or captured?  This language is being promulgated by the same factions who cry “FOUL, that’s uncivil,” when their political adversaries passionately express an opposing view.

 There are greater issues of national significance than beltway bickering and partisan name-calling, which has gone on since the founding of our country. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said that John Adams possessed “neither the firmness of a man, nor the sensibility of a woman.” Ouch! Democrats and republicans have different views of how the country should be governed. However, it seems that many democrats are annoyed by competition. They don’t want to beat their opponent, they don’t want the opponent to even show up for the game, much less try to play. Both sides should continue to express their ideas and communicate their principles through passionate discussion and debate. There are hateful bottom feeders all across the political spectrum. But the idea that one side should cease to opine, while the other shouts its point-of-view across the country, is absurd. The open exchange of ideas is the hallmark of a free nation. It is noble for all parties to adhere to civil speech when debating the most contentious of topics. Civility is not tantamount to silence and retreat, but instead provides a framework for passionate debate, while all parties maintain dignity in the face of disagreement.