Friday, February 20, 2015

Another Week in our "Argument Culture"

I wasn't raised in an era where politicians went on TV or radio and insulted the President.  I'm not saying that it was a kinder, gentler time-- after all, I was raised during the era of McCarthyism, and the rhetoric could be brutal at times.  But I truly do not recall any major candidates in the 1952 or 1956 presidential campaigns publicly directing ugly or snide remarks towards their opponent.  I don't know what they said in private, and it probably wasn't very flattering. But in public, the president-- whether you liked him or not-- was treated with a certain respect.

These days, however, we are far more polarized as a nation than we were when I was growing up. Back then, we had a greater faith in the media (surveys really did show that CBS-TV news anchor Walter Cronkite was considered "the most trusted man in America").  Politicians from both parties actually worked together sometimes and got things done; they even socialized with each other. But today's congress is far more adversarial, and far less willing to compromise. As a result, less gets accomplished:  according to a Pew Research Center report (, the recently concluded 113th congress was one of the least productive in modern history.   

Some historians believe the slide towards polarization and cynicism began during the Vietnam era, while some attribute it to President Nixon and Watergate or even Bill Clinton and Monica.  But wherever it started, it has led to a time when politicians can pander to their party's base by saying the most outrageous things and rather than having to slink away in shame, they then get praised for doing so when they go on "friendly media."  And so it was, several days ago, when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided it was a good time to accuse President Obama of being insufficiently patriotic.  At a fundraiser for likely Republican candidate Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Giuliani opined that "I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America."  He then went on Fox News and doubled down on the remark, defending his view that somehow, the president does not express a love of America the way other presidents have. (

As a partisan, Giuliani has every right to attack the president's policies and try to position the Republican party as far better suited to lead the country. I would expect that. When President Bush was in the White House, Democrats did the same thing, asserting that Democratic candidates could do a better job than George W. Bush and the Republicans.  But while criticism of the Bush presidency was often strident, especially during his second term, I do not recall any Democratic leaders, nor any Democratic presidential candidates saying Mr. Bush did not love America.  This sort of attack on President Obama's patriotism (rather than sticking to a critique of his policies) strikes me as one more reason many Americans dislike politics.  If political discourse is nothing but name-calling and bluster, it's no wonder nothing gets done.  Insult-driven conversations make great fodder for talk shows, but they don't do much for democracy.  

I'm sure some of you who are reading this are thinking, "Donna is probably some liberal shill who defends President Obama no matter what."  You would be wrong in thinking that. I've always voted for the candidates I thought were problem-solvers, whether they were Republicans, Democrats, or Independents.   But what I am asking for is a return to basic courtesy:  a return to respecting the office of the presidency, even if you don't like the person currently in power.  I know that "politics ain't beanbag," as the mythical Mr. Dooley said way back in 1895, and I know that in the heat of a campaign (or in the process of getting ready for a campaign), partisans will try to stir up their base.  But I can't get accustomed to a world where it's okay to impugn the patriotism of those with whom we disagree. 

A number of contemporary media theorists, such as Walter Ong and Deborah Tannen, have suggested we live in an "argument culture," in which we seem to argue at the drop of a hat.  The internet and social media have enhanced our ability to do that, even allowing us a certain anonymity when we write hateful things we might never say in person.  I don't miss much about the 50s, but I do miss the respect we had for certain institutions, including the presidency. I doubt that Rudy Giuliani will apologize for what he said-- he's already gotten a lot of free publicity and attention he might not have otherwise gotten.  But he also diminished our political discourse a little more.  Perhaps he's okay with that, but I am not.  Change has to start somewhere, so why not with you, Rudy? How about it? Continue to be a partisan, support your chosen candidate passionately. But how about making a promise not to question the other person's love of country? That would certainly be a step in the right direction.


  1. I think "argument culture" is a great way to put it. For quite a few years, I've been calling it "Argument Clinic politics" after the sketch on Monty Python's Flying Circus...the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.

    We've seen this recently several times -- and not just with the Affordable Care Act -- where President Obama has proposed a policy previously advocated by Republicans and the GOP suddenly disavows any previous support. That's not to say Democrats haven't pulled the same thing but it seems the Republicans are turning this into a true art form.

    As somebody that started paying attention to news and politics early in life and clearly remembers things going back to 1971, I too miss the days when, in most cases, everybody would finally sit down like adults and come to a compromise. To bring up two people known for a fairly recent great compromise, I think Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill would both be quite upset to see how their parties have been acting lately.

  2. Argument culture, yes. But I am convinced the root of the problem is the money flowing into the political parties in the form of "campaign contributions". The recent Citizens United (the exact opposite of what it sounds like) Supreme Court decision has added about as much fuel to this fire as OPEC produces. There is so much to be gained that candidates are willing to do or say anything necessary to help their party gain control over where our tax dollars get funneled to.

    George Washington predicted in 1789, that political parties would likely become a tool used by "cunning and unprincipled men, to subvert the power of the people, and usurp for themselves the reins of the government". While the majority of Americans are caught up in and blinded by this "argument culture", our congressmen (from both parties) are making shady, clandestine deals to subvert our tax dollars to large corporations and/or their own personal interests.