I don’t know anybody – not one single person – who isn’t upset by the spectacle of incivility now ongoing in America’s national politics. This is not to say that many on either side (and there are many more than two “factions”) don’t believe themselves justified in blaming the other. Yet the phrase I hear from most people is, “a pox on both their houses.”
It is, perhaps, some comfort to recall the tenor of nineteenth-century politics, as, for instance, in the Election of 1800, a raucous and vitriolic battle between two “sainted” Founders, Adams vs. Jefferson. Jefferson’s publicist, James T. Callender, called President Adams (Jefferson’s erstwhile friend) a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” and a whoremonger to boot. On Adams’ side (though without his express approval), the New England Courant claimed that in Jeffersonian America: “Murder, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”
After Jefferson’s victory, Callender turned on him (when no patronage job was offered) by exposing the Sally Hemings Affair, and Abigail Adams wrote acidly to Jefferson that the “serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him.” With such vipers loosed, she scolded the president: “all distinctions between vice and virtue are leveled, all respect for character is lost.”
Don’t we know it!
So the temptation may be to say: It was ever thus. But that’s untrue.
Probably every one of us (of a certain age) can recall, in some decades past, either saying or hearing it said (an earlier version of the “pox” comment above) that there’s just no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, who since World War II at least through Watergate seemed like Tweedledee and Tweedledum; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Consider these quotes:
Our nation has entered into an age in which Divine Providence has permitted the genius of man. . .
[I]t is our prayerful hope that the people, whom we have so faithfully served, will renew the mandate to continue our service and that Almighty God may grant us the wisdom to succeed. . .
Slander, defamation of character, deception and dishonesty are as truly transgressions of God’s commandments, when resorted to by men in public life, as they are for all other men. . . .
Alice discusses politics (illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1871)
And what about this pithy gem?
We hold that government, and those entrusted with government, should set a high example of honesty, of justice, and unselfish devotion to the public good; that they should labor to maintain tranquility at home and peace and friendship with all the nations of the world.
And this was a good thing, in that it promoted civility and a deliberate sense about shared goals. So what changed? Take your pick: Vietnam and the rise of the “intellectual” Left, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, the Iran hostage crisis and Carter’s malaise, Reagan (a man of civility who addled his opponents), the impeachment of Clinton, Bush v. Gore, the decline of faith, and – oddly – 9/11, which was briefly unifying.
It’s no exaggeration now to say that Tweedledee and Tweedledum have gone to war, nor is it anything but a certainty that if and when the GOP regains the presidency while controlling one house of Congress that the Democrats will take the same obstructionist positions they now identify as Republican mendacity.
It’s fair to say this weakens America’s position in the world. We all sense this, but it isn’t just a passing matter of Mr. Obama’s ongoing fecklessness. A Republican president is likely to be just as feeble, since his or her constituents no longer have the kind of trust in leadership sufficient to endorse global action with anything approaching democratic consensus. Probably true too of ambitious domestic policies. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once quipped, what we have now is: “Too much pluribus, not enough unum.”
So people call for new political parties of libertarianism or of religious conservatism or of socialism or of isolationism. The Electoral College, i.e., the Constitution, will always make third, fourth (or however many additional) parties impractical in American presidential politics (every election decided in the House?), but such clarions believe that unity is now an illusion and all that’s left is a kind of guerrilla politics. No common ground. No common good.
Is this the legacy of multiculturalism?
Here’s a formula to consider: multiculturalism = deculturalization = disequilibrium = disintegration.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre . . . That line and the title of this column come from W.B. Yeats The Second Coming, a poem grown more prophetic every year since he wrote it in 1919.
And I can’t help but wonder if this kind of analysis, mine not Yeats’, isn’t what Pope Francis has been offering in the context of Catholicism and the world. He is calling us back to the core mission of the Church, which is bringing Christ’s love to the world.
Our American mission is different, of course: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” But perhaps we can all agree that we’ll succeed only if we recover at least a modicum of civility.
That recovery depends on just how much deculturalization has already happened.