James Fallows asks, what would civility in political discourse look like? He receives many subtle and intriguing answers.
I propose that we could again have a civil discourse by applying one simple rule: expect the truth. If we punished politicians who knowingly said things that were false, that they didn’t mean, that they knew were not really true, the whole right-wing noise machine would collapse.
Examples of alternate history:
- After Sarah Palin went off-message with “death panels,” commentators pointed out that she was incorrect and she knew it. Few thenceforth paid any attention to her. “Refudiate” never became a word, and no one ever thought accountability for violent Republican rhetoric was a “blood libel”.
- After Joe Wilson got carried away at the State of the Union address and shouted “You lie!” his shocked neighbors recoiled. “I understand how he must feel,” a senior Republican statesman told reporters later that night. “He’s a promising young man, he feels deeply, he got carried away. Maybe he was unwell. I hate to see a fellow like Joe Wilson throw his career away like that, and I hope one of our Think Tanks will find him a good position.” Of course, Wilson resigned from the House the next morning, and after a year of rest and meditation, joined the faculty of the Spartanburg Community College.
- Plummeting ratings relegated Russ Limbaugh and Michael Savage to a streaming internet outlets. “They were great entertainers,” a media historian later wrote, “but once the public understood that feminists weren’t national socialists and that Democrats were not communists, and that the Her Majesty’s Government really has no idea who Mr. Savage is much less a plan to persecute him, there was really no audience left.”
It was once possible for politicians to avoid outright lies. Look again, for example, at Lincoln’s Cooper Union address. This was a campaign speech, and a highly partisan speech. It denounces Lincoln’s opponents and ridicules their position, yet it says nothing that is not true. In one section that finds echoes this morning, Lincoln answers Southern accusations that anti-slavery rhetoric encouraged insurrectionists like John Brown.
You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper's Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper's Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.
“Inexcusable” is the word we need now. It was inexcusable to conjure up mirages of death panels. It was inexcusable to pretend that the president is not a citizen. It was inexcusable to talk of “second amendment remedies” for grievances like insurance rates or the rights of gay people to marry.