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Uncivil Discourse

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I am deeply troubled by the tenor of current political discourse in this country. More and more Republicans don't just disagree with Democrats, they despise them -- and vice versa. People don't just challenge someone's views -- they challenge the other person's integrity. Enjoyable, informative, and civil discussions between people with different points of view are becoming rare.

The most recent episode to deeply offend me occurred after Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's wife left the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in tears. An Alito opponent soon asked on a popular liberal Web site, "Do we want a judge who would marry such a weak-willed bitch?"

On the same day, I happened to watch The War Room, a documentary about the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. In one scene, Clinton strategist James Carville fielded reporters' questions arising from allegations by conservatives that Clinton had been brainwashed or recruited as a Soviet agent while he backpacked across Europe during college.

There may well be plenty of reasons to oppose Alito's confirmation or to have opposed Clinton's candidacy, but aren't these attacks out of bounds for a civil society?

Of course, playing politics has never been a game of patty-cake. Politics junkies have all heard that a House member from the South beat an anti-slavery senator unconscious in 1856 and that the 1884 campaign chant against Grover Cleveland, who was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, was "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha."

But an unreasonable share of today's political conversation is venomous and lacking any effort at accuracy or fairness. I blame this problem first on the rise of political food-fight shows on cable television, on radio talk shows, and most recently on the Internet, where political discourse has become the Wild West.

Although televised left-right sparring matches go way back -- at least to the 60 Minutes segment of the 1970s pitting conservative James Kilpatrick against liberal Shana Alexander -- the bounds of decency were respected as the other side's views were attacked. But talk radio erased those boundaries. Talk radio is tailored for like-minded people, and the host's goal is to promote outrage among listeners. The clear purpose is to inflame, not inform.

Fans of talk radio are quick to argue that its growth is due to a liberal and pro-Democratic bias among the mainstream media, a charge that is not completely without merit. It is certainly a plausible theory that the Newt Gingrich-led Republican sweep of the House and Senate in 1994 was powered largely by conservative talk-show hosts, most notably Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh and others tapped into a stream of outrage among alienated conservatives, and whipped their audiences into a frenzy that helped lead to the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years.

The Internet has simply taken the hostilities to new heights. Despite being one of the most amazing technological developments of the past 100 years, it is also an electronic version of the inside door of a public bathroom stall. Libelous accusations can be posted anonymously. And information that is inaccurate or taken totally out of context can get widely disseminated instantaneously.

What makes all of this so corrosive is that fewer people are reading, watching, or listening to political coverage that is balanced and fair. This results in hair-trigger reactions to any perceived misdeed by anyone in the opposite party, while partisans ignore comparable mistakes in their own party.

It all makes me nostalgic for my days as a high school debater. For one hour, we would have to argue the affirmative side of a proposal. During the next hour, we would have to make the case in opposition just as strenuously. Before long, most of us reached the conclusion that the truth was rarely found exclusively on a single side and that there are very legitimate arguments on each side of just about every important policy question. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Americans share that view.

If there is a solution to the degeneration of our political debate, I haven't found it. But I certainly hope someone finds it soon.

 
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