Charleston Post and Courier
The perils of political 'civility'
Friday, July 11, 2008
Commentary decrying an alleged decline of civility in American political discourse proliferates. Yet Joseph Tartakovsky, on The Wall Street Journal's Opinion page last week, makes a persuasive case that what ails our campaign seasons these days is not an excess, but a shortage, of well-delivered "ridicule."
Mr. Tarkakovsky, an associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books, argues: "The political insult is not insinuation, a whisper campaign, or a planted story. It is direct verbal attack, a public performance before a voting audience."
He cited "the flamboyant Sen. John Randolph," who produced this memorable condemnation of Edward Livingston, secretary of state under President Andrew Jackson:
"He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks."
So don't count Mr. Tartakovsky among the legions demanding that Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, and their allies, fulfill the candidates' mutual pledge, issued five weeks ago, to maintain "a civil discussion" over the next four months.
Mr. Tartakovsky warns: "Civility has a way of creeping into daintiness. If our candidates lose their willingness to spar, their sense of combative humor, will the contest grow more polite, or just less honest?"
And while unseemly rhetorical barbs can turn off some voters, the electorate generally is better informed about the honest essence of candidates who must endure such verbal and written abuse — and is far more engaged in the political process when it isn't cloaked in a prearranged "civility."