Putting Our Uncivil Presidential Race in Historical Perspective

There’s a sub-genre out there of news articles about civility that focus on its decline and impending demise. The most recent, perhaps, is an August column in the Jewish Journal that begins with the austere pronouncement that the last quarter of a century has witnessed the decline of civility in U.S. politics. But it is hardly the only article of its type. Olympia Snowe made news in 2014 when she called the decline of civility in political discourse one of the big issues with Congress. The 2012 Presidential election was rife with similar sentiments. And New York Times columnist David Brooks, in 2011, proclaimed that the problem of polarization and the loss of civility in our time may be attributed to the fact that civility’s roots in modesty have been carved away.

It’s hard, looking at the current crop of presidential hopefuls, to disagree with these assessments. More than a year out from the 2016 election, contenders in this vast field of candidates are lobbing ad hominem attacks at each other and the media, and competing, it seems – from certain perspectives at least – to state their policy positions in the most crass manner possible. The column in the Jewish Journal calls the current flashpoint … the media firestorm over The Donald’s misogyny and xenophobia. But Mr. Trump is not alone. And his party is not the only culprit.

The fact, however, that a devolution into epidemic incivility is an easy narrative for many of us to like does not make it accurate. And the fact that our current culture may reward politicians for boorish behavior does not mean that that was any less true twenty-five, or fifty, or one hundred fifty years ago.

Case in point: the 1884 presidential race.

In 1884, the Democrats put up former New York Governor Grover Cleveland against the Republicans’ James G. Blaine, who had been Secretary of State to Benjamin Harrison and James Garfield. The famous icon of incivility from that race is a certain political cartoon, promoted by Republicans, that dramatized the narrative that Cleveland had abandoned an illegitimate child in order to make his run for the White House. Republicans charged that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child while he was a lawyer in Buffalo, and chanted, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” at rallies and campaign stops.

But that was hardly the only uncivil trope that year. Charging that James G. Blaine was too deep in the pockets of lobbyists and that he had corruptly influenced legislation in favor of railroads, later profiting on the sale of bonds, Democrats and competing Republicans alike labeled him a liar and a crook. Political cartoons appeared that vivified the indelible nature of Blaine’s prior misdeeds by depicting him covered in tattoos. And at Democratic political events, the rallying cries included the chanted slogan: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.

Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa

James G. Blaine Marked With the Indellible Ink of Corruption

1884 saw a schism in the Republican party in which one prominent faction – the so-called Mugwumps – sided with the Cleveland campaign out of outrage at Blaine’s nomination. And it saw members of the remaining Republicans engage in personal attacks against that faction, including intimations that its members were homosexual.

We tend to think of incivility in politics, and especially during campaigns, as a modern innovation because it is so amplified by television news, and especially by the 24-hour news cycle. But even at the unamplified volume of 1884 – before radio, much less television – it was no less present.

If anything, we in the twenty-first century have good cause for hope on civility in some respects. Our politicians may pepper their discourse with terms like anchor babies, and our media may make derisive comments about the state of one leading candidate’s hair. But no matter how harrowing it becomes, our political culture is not that of the 1855-56 34th Congress. And no matter how uncivil our words, none of our current crop of politicians is like U.S. Representative Preston Brooks who, on May 22, 1856, beat Senator Charles Sumner with a walking cane on the Senate floor, causing him a severe head trauma from which it took three years of convalescence to recover.

Contemporary columnists are correct in their assessment that we need more civility in our politics. It is obviously to all our advantages to talk through our differences instead of slinging mud (or wielding blunt weapons). And it is certainly to all our advantages to be in a position where we have partners on the other side of the political aisle rather than rivals or enemies.

But to overstate the case – to suggest that Washington D.C. is a sinking ship and that among its denizens, it’s every rat for himself – does no one any good. And aside from its inaccuracy, it seems demoralizing rather than motivating to suggest that the uncivil present is any worse than our uncivil past.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: Fifty Years of Civility in Civic Action

March on Washington for Jobs and FreedomYesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in which, on August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 marchers converged on Washington D.C. to call for an end to discrimination and a legal pathway forward to racial equality.

It is a day that we now remember as the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We remember it for his exhortation that social change must necessarily eschew violence — that it must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. And we remember it for his insistence that nonviolence must not become code for the tranquilizing drug of gradualism — that:

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

But even as we remember how Dr. King balanced the need for civic action with the need to act civilly in his rhetoric, it is easy to forget that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was itself an example of that philosophy in practice.

The New York Times of 1963 reported over and over, of the preparations for the March and of the March itself, on the order and amiability of its African American participants. It marked with surprise that one group from Alabama showed themselves to be peaceful in the Birmingham park as they boarded a bus to the nation’s capital. And it called the mass of marchers on the National Mall an orderly demonstration.*

The degree to which that order and that amiability came as a surprise reveals a great deal about the racially tinged lowered expectations of the newspaper in 1963 — and of the nation as a whole. And yet it is still worth noting that in its appraisal of the marchers’ tenor and actions, the New York Times was not wrong.

In preparation for the March, the city of Washington D.C. brought in National Guardsmen to police the streets, and deputized firefighters. Area hospitals cleared schedules to make room for expected riot casualties, and local jails cleared cells in preparation for mass arrests.

But there was no riot. And there were no mass arrests. And the single largest policing action of the day did not involve African American marchers at all, but was the dispersion of fifty members of the American Nazi Party who had turned out to stage a counter-protest.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize one year later, Dr. King said that the crucial political and moral question of our time is the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. And the peaceable, orderly, civil March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom stands as one kind of answer.

On August 28, 1963, marchers, speakers, and protesters on the National Mall reached out with civility, not violence, to demand redress for a lingering, suppurating wrong. And to that gesture — sometimes slowly, and sometimes through a veil of violent resistance to change — civil hands reached back.

* Tom Wicker. “President Meets March Leaders.” New York Times, August 29, 1963.