Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Age of Invective

Published in Commentary Magazine on October 3, 2013



Even for our time, the invective is remarkable.

In the current debate about the continuing resolution and the government shutdown, and because of their determination to begin to unwind the highly unpopular Affordable Care Act, Republicans are being referred to as jihadists, arsonists, anarchists, terrorists, extortionists, racists, gun-to-the-head hostage takers, grave threats to American democracy, the heirs of Joe McCarthy, and the architects of “insidious and anti-constitutional acts of racist vandalism.”

There are several points to be made about this, the most obvious of which is that these charges are being leveled by President Obama and the aides and allies of Mr. Obama–a man, it’s worth recalling, who promised he would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.”

Yet things are worse now than before; and they are worse in large measure because of Mr. Obama himself.

Now, even if you believe what the GOP is doing is unwise–even if you believe the Affordable Care Act is one of the great achievements in American history–the characterization of Republicans by the left is not just unfair but slanderous. One can actually believe the Affordable Care Act is harmful and should be undone without being “people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” in the words of White House aide Dan Pfeiffer. But the kind of sulfuric rhetoric that’s being commonly used these days is also, on a deep level, damaging to our country.

The reason is that there are such things as civic bonds, and they are quite important. In his book Our Sacred Honor, William Bennett reminds us that the word “civility” comes from the Latin root civitas, meaning city–and civis, meaning citizen. “Civility, then,” Bennett writes, “is behavior worthy of citizens living in a city or in common with others.” It uplifts our common life. And how we treat one another goes some distance toward determining the degree to which we achieve “domestic tranquility.”

It would be silly to pretend that political passions don’t create divisions. (We know that political differences almost destroyed the wonderful friendship that existed between Jefferson and Adams. They eventually reconciled, thanks to the intervention of their mutual friend Benjamin Rush.) Nor do I believe politics should be stripped of intense debates or criticisms of others. Quite the opposite, in fact. Standing against policies one believes to be wrong and even unjust can be commendable.

My point is that I’ve found myself in the middle of plenty of disagreements over the years – and the temptation to pivot from sharp substantive disagreements to denigrating and demonizing those with whom we disagree is ever-present. I’m certain there are lines of propriety I’ve crossed. But in our calmer and wiser moments we all understand that those are precisely the temptations we need to try to resist, even if imperfectly; and that even our political opponents are deserving of being treated with a certain dignity.

Our greatest president understood this perhaps better than anyone. Upon taking office during the most polarized period in our history, Abraham Lincoln closed his first inaugural address by reminding us that we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies, he said. And then he added this:

Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The divisions in America today are undeniably deep–and sometimes it seems as if those on the left and the right are operating in different worlds, based on a different set of values. Neither side can understand why the other doesn’t see things as they do. (I say that not as a detached observer floating comfortably above the fray but as a conservative who is involved in the daily back-and-forth of politics and whose worldview is very different than that of modern-day progressives.)

Yet we are nowhere near the place we were in 1860. And now, like then, the bonds of affection that unite Americans need to be attended to. We’re all worse off if they fray. Nor do we need to portray those with whom we disagree as moral monsters. That might be worth recalling at a time in which the political rhetoric has spun ludicrously out of control.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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