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Political vitriol is bad these days, but experts say it’s been worse
A flag is flown at half staff. (Journal Sentinel files) A flag is flown at half staff. (Journal Sentinel files)

A flag is flown at half staff. (Journal Sentinel files)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher January 16, 2011

The day after an Arizona congresswoman and 18 other people were shot in Tucson, former Wisconsin congressman Dave Obey spoke out on the state of public discourse in America.

"We are now reaping the whirlwind after years of wild anti-government, anti-politician, simplistic political vitriol," Obey said in a statement issued Jan. 9, 2011.

"Over time, that vitriol can create a climate that makes it easier for unhinged and unbalanced individuals to go over the edge with tragic results for innocent victims and the nation."

Tying the quality of public dialogue to the attempted assassination, which killed six and left Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically injured, raises a question:

Just how bad is political civility in America?

The statement by Obey, a Democrat who served 41 years in the House of Representatives, is opinion. So we can’t evaluate it with the Truth-O-Meter.

But we thought the question about political civility was worth pursuing. So we contacted six Wisconsin professors whose specialties are history, political science or communication.

Five of the six flatly stated that political civility has been worse at any number of times in the nation’s history.

Only Bonnie Brennen, a Marquette University journalism professor, didn’t share that view.

"There is seemingly no interest in having a rational conversation," she said of public dialogue today.

The other experts echoed University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Glen Jeansonne, who said rancor in public debate "goes back a long time."

"I’d really hate to see us overreact right now," he said.

None of the professors lauded the state of political civility today, but two periods were cited most often for having the least civility:

  • The 1850s, which saw passions over slavery split families and fracture the nation, eventually led to the Civil War.
  • The 1960s, which were marked by divisions over the Vietnam War and civil rights, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama faced false claims that he was a Muslim and wasn’t born in the U.S. But those attacks "were nothing compared to what was said about Barry Goldwater in 1964," said Jeansonne, who wrote a biography of Obama.

Foes of Goldwater, an Arizona senator who was the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, turned his campaign slogan -- "In your heart, you know he’s right" -- into one of their own: "In your guts, you know he’s nuts."

Obama, at a memorial service for the Tucson victims, characterized today’s public discourse as "sharply polarized." But the experts we consulted said the level of political civility has often been considerably lower.  

Some examples:

In 1856, U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave a speech criticizing pro-slavery southerners. Three days later, he was beaten so badly -- on the Senate floor -- by U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina that he didn’t return to the Senate for three years.

In 1950, Republican U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin entered the national spotlight by claiming Communists had infested the U.S. State Department. A special Senate committee found the allegations groundless, but McCarthy’s Communism crusade continued for several years, until he was officially censured.

And in 1963, a month before President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, anti-United Nations demonstrators struck U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson on the head and spit on him following a speech he gave in Dallas.

By the time Kennedy arrived in the city, recalled Lawrence University history professor Jerald Podair, people were circulating handbills with a picture of the Democratic president that read: "Wanted for treason."

"It’s always good to step back and look at what we’re saying about each other," Podair said of political rhetoric today, "but I don’t think what we’re saying is so markedly different from the past."

Attempts to bring congeniality to Congress were made with "civility retreats" in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Cardinal Stritch University political science professor Elizabeth Janairo.  

"Then they didn’t have any more," she said. "I think that it didn’t work."

In the past several years, and particularly in the wake of the Tucson shootings, Obey and other citizens have decried the current state of public discourse. One reason is that many people don’t know history, said Janairo, whose specialties include political rhetoric and politics and the media/Internet.

Another key reason, she said, is the nation is exposed to round-the-clock news and instant communication through the Internet.

"Things get echoed loudly, so it seems like there’s more and it’s more intense," Janairo said.  

The instant communication -- and the increased tendency of politicians to take extreme positions and demonize their opponents -- have put political civility at its lowest ebb in the past 25 years, according to University of Wisconsin-Whitewater communication professor Richard Haven.

Haven cited use of the term "death panels" by critics of Obama’s health care reform proposal, which he signed into law in March 2010. Instead of stating a different viewpoint on the plan, opponents were "talking about a sinister plot to end people’s lives," he said.

(Use of the term "death panels" was chosen as the Lie of the Year for 2009 by PolitiFact National.)

Opponents of conservatives have also stepped well beyond critical rhetoric.

In the week after the Tucson shootings, threats were made to at least six Republican elected officials in Wisconsin, including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Gov. Scott Walker.

Still, citizens disturbed by the current state of affairs might find comfort in the view that political civility has often been worse.

Oscar Chamberlain, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire history professor, said the discussion reminded him of what his father once told him: "It’s hard to deal with someone who believes that he’s going to heaven and you’re not."

Chamberlain said "it does seem to me that there are too many people on both sides today who know who is going to heaven -- and it's not their opponents."

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Our Sources

Dave Obey, news release, Jan. 9, 2011

Interview, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Glen Jeansonne, Jan. 12, 2011

Interview, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater communication professor Richard Haven, Jan. 12, 2011

Interview, Lawrence University history professor Jerald Podair, Jan. 13, 2011

Interview, Cardinal Stritch University political science professor Elizabeth Janairo, Jan. 13, 2011

Interview, Marquette University journalism professor Bonnie Brennen, Jan. 13, 2011

E-mail interview, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire history professor Oscar Chamberlain, Jan. 12, 2011

The White House, Remarks by President Obama at memorial service for Tucson shooting victims, Jan. 12, 2011

Powerlines(page 72), Steve Cone, 2008

New York Times, Regional divides, Sept. 18, 2009

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Vukmir and Darling get web threats, Jan. 13, 2011

Dallas Morning News, Will Dallas ever shake the Kennedy stigma?, Jan. 27, 2004

Associated Press, Congress retreats in search of civility, March 11, 2001

PolitiFact, PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year: ‘Death panels’, Dec. 18, 2009

University of Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy biographical summary

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

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Political vitriol is bad these days, but experts say it’s been worse