Paul Nitze: Vitriol has its place in our political culture
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Having spent the better part of three years working in Adams County, I’ve grown accustomed to the local sport of mocking Commerce City. I am guilty of making a few jokes at Commerce City’s expense myself. So I was pleasantly surprised when a bit of political wisdom emerged last week from Denver’s northern neighbor.
In an odd bit of coincidence, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce released a letter two days after the Tucson shootings calling on Colorado pols to conduct themselves in “a thoughtful and respect-filled manner.” Most legislators responded with gravely sincere promises to do exactly that. Commerce City’s state representative, Edward Casso, told the Chamber to shove it.
Actually, he was much more “thoughtful and respect-filled” in his comments. In Casso’s words, “Politics is a contact sport, and you had better have thick enough skin to take the criticisms along with the praise. The act of governing is too important to not be strong or defend your positions.”
Casso finds himself in the lonely position of defending rhetorical blood-sport at a time when politicians of all stripes are jumping on the civility bandwagon. Colorado’s own Sen. Mark Udall has taken up this banner with his call for Republicans and Democrats to intermingle during next week’s State of the Union address.
Calls for greater civility appear to be stage three of our national response to Tucson. Stage one was the utterly baseless contention that Jared Loughner was inspired by right-wing polemicists. If you shudder at the thought of President Palin, join the club; but she is not to blame for Loughner’s murders.
Stage two was the more general proposition that even if Loughner wasn’t incited to violence by hate-mongers, we’ve reached a watershed for nastiness and vitriol. While this debate continues to play out, there’s a bit of an evidence problem here, too. Our country’s not immune to political violence, but we fare much better on that score than almost anywhere else in the world. And over the centuries our political murder rate is way down.
Now we’re at the stage of paeans to greater comity and goodwill in public life. The idea is that if our leaders treat each other with respect, more will be accomplished. Let me assure you that isn’t the case. Respect is a virtue, but it’s a virtue that has little to do with political action.
Kudos to Rep. Casso for saying it. For those who think otherwise, my question is the following: Would you trade health care or any other major legislative achievement of the last Congress for a more polite and respectful political culture? Would you trade the lies about death panels for universal coverage?
I met Gabrielle Giffords once, at a small fundraiser for her in New York City during her first run for Congress. It’s a testament to her personal appeal that she was able to raise money from people like me, who had never set foot in her district.
But Giffords wasn’t much for small talk, at least not that night. She was intense and wonky, moving briskly from one talking point to another. Giffords opened the pockets of a bunch of jaded New Yorkers because she projected herself as someone dead set on getting things done.
The president captured this aspect of Giffords’ career when he spoke last week in Tucson. Giffords, he said, was notable for her “desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.”
We should not like it, but vitriol has its place in our political culture. Vitriol is the means by which extremists are incorporated into the political process. Vitriol is an outlet.
Some of our greatest politicians were, at times, also our most vitriolic. Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John Calhoun were at each others throats for years, but they also delayed the onset of the Civil War for the better part of 40 years.
Giffords is a bright light in the political firmament because she actually is hungry “to form a more perfect union.” The path toward that goal will be greased by a better-functioning democracy, meaning a democracy that’s more accountable to the voters. If anything history tells us that violence is sparked not by rhetoric, but by disenfranchisement. And those of us who cherish political progress will swallow all sorts of nastiness if we can ultimately get across the goal line.
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Sean Beckwith is taking advantage of his column space this week to inform the public of the Best in Jest.