Reviving Political Discourse
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I grew up believing that political discourse involving two conflicting viewpoints meant personal attacks would be present. This idea can mostly be attributed to the first presidential debate I ever watched between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Rather than hearing the candidate’s different policy proposals, I heard only insults and hostile bickering.
Once again, I was watching the presidential debate in 2020 when a similar instance occurred. All I heard were personal attacks where phrases like “clown” were thrown around. Both of these debates were not true political discourse.
This hostile attitude is not limited to the debate setting. In congressional and Senate hearings, there is often endless bickering, name-calling, and bullying. The Republican and Democratic Parties both have members who are blatantly intolerant and rude toward those on the other side. For example, Representative Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, called Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, a vulgar expletive and made other insults such as “disgusting,” “dangerous,” and “crazy” on the steps of the Capitol in June of 2020. Though politicians do get legislation passed, the whole process could be much more effective without a slew of personal attacks and hostility.
Political discourse requires cooperation, respect, and even friendship among those with opposing political views. Former Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were polar opposites when it came to judicial philosophy. Justice Scalia was a staunch conservative known for his criticism of judicial activism. Justice Ginsburg, however, was more liberal and advocated for women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Despite their opposing views, Scalia and Ginsburg had an unwavering friendship that was built off of their differences rather than their similarities. Ginsburg once wrote in a statement she released after Scalia’s death that they were “different in [their] interpretation of written texts, [but] one in [their] reverence for the Constitution and the institution [they] serve.” Despite their disagreement on issues from the constitutionality of abortion to judicial activism, they still had a strong friendship because they were able to disagree with each other respectfully. Though they often criticized each other’s ideas and sparred immensely while on the bench, they never criticized each other’s personal character or intellect and shared mutual respect.
Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill had a similar relationship despite their ideological differences; Reagan wanted to implement tax cuts, increase military spending, and deregulate the economy. As speaker of the House, O’Neill did everything in his power to prevent Reagan’s vision from taking place. However, they politely interacted with each other and had lunches together. Additionally, John McCain and Barack Obama, who both ran for president in 2008, spoke positively and respectfully about each other. McCain even asked Obama to deliver his eulogy in 2018. These respectful relationships between politicians, however, are not seen today as often as they once were.
The decline in political discourse can be partially attributed to former President Trump’s rhetoric and tone when he spoke to those who disagreed with him. They were distinct from those of previous presidents and created a shift from respectful argumentation to hostile name-calling and threats of retribution. He denied that Senator McCain was a war hero and called him a “loser,” called Senator Mitt Romney “a stone cold loser” for speaking out against him, and told Representative Ilhan Omar and other members of the Squad, a group of progressive members of Congress, to return to “the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” His presidency, more specifically his insulting rhetoric, accelerated the decline in true political discourse in Washington, D.C.
The lack of true political discourse is the reason why there is legislative gridlock, which is when legislation is passed at a slow rate, in both Congress and the Senate. When politicians refuse to engage in civilized discussion and compromise, it is difficult to enact impactful change and legislation. For example, the House introduced, voted on, and passed about 400 bills in 2020, but 80 percent of those bills did not pass in the Senate because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prevented them from even being debated on. As a piece of legislation’s final enactment depends on both Congress and the Senate’s approval, the Senate could not debate these bills when McConnell declared them “dead on arrival.” Because of uncompromising politicians, laws that would have helped a majority of Americans, such as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, the Lowering Drugs Costs Now Act, and the Protecting Americans with Preexisting Conditions Act, awaited debate instead.
Additionally, the lack of civil discourse has reflected badly on Washington, D.C. Nearly 80 percent of Americans are concerned about the lack of civility in politics and believe it will lead to violence. This general consensus that transcends party lines is rare and shows that it is an issue. Americans are scared that the lack of true and respectful political discourse will result in negative consequences.
To resolve this problem, politicians must start engaging in difficult but necessary conversations about policy and legislation that do not involve personal attacks and the demonization of each other. Additionally, they must put their country’s and constituents’ best interests over their party’s.
Justice Scalia once said, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people.” This precedent is what politicians need to follow today. They must learn from Justices Ginsburg and Scalia, Reagan and O’Neill, Obama and McCain, and the many other examples of politicians who set aside their differing beliefs to work together toward benefiting the American people. Though they do not need to be the closest of friends, politicians must focus on exchanging and listening to ideas, not attacking each other, to create tangible change. True and proper civic discourse involves listening, respectfully responding to each other, and sometimes compromising; it does not involve viewing civility and respect as a liability and weakness.