Lack of Dignity in Politics is Nothing New
by Ned Sheehan on Friday, April 8th, 2016
These days, I often hear people asking, “Where has the dignity gone in politics? Why is there obstructionism in Washington instead of compromise? Why has progress been replaced by spectacle? Why have policy platforms been replaced by attack ads?” The perceived culprits for these issues are numerous; we blame the 24-hour news cycle, our decreasing attention span and obsession with nuance-free sound bites, and of course, our opposing political party. However, I rarely hear any solutions. And, ladies and gentlemen, this lack of civility is inevitable. Politics have never been a game for the dignified; there are just more platforms today that make this lack of dignity transparent.
Let me take you back to 1988. Throughout the ‘80s, President Reagan had repealed a number of acts mandating network TV be “unbiased” in both content and commercials because the acts violated the First Amendment. Meanwhile, George H. W. Bush, the incumbent Vice President and GOP presidential nominee, was reeling from the Iran-Contra scandal (a string of shady deals that the United States conducted by selling guns to Iran to fund Latin American dictators). In addition, Bush’s running mate, Dan Quayle, was regarded as an inexperienced buffoon, while his opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, was credited for shifting Massachusetts — and Boston in particular — into an economic powerhouse. All seemed lost for Bush, but then came Willie Horton.
Conveniently for Bush, Dukakis had supported a bill that granted weekend furloughs to prison inmates. One of those inmates was Willie Horton, a murderer who went to Maryland after being released from prison only to beat and rape a young woman in front of her fiance. This was at the peak of a nationwide crime wave. Millions of panicked Americans turned their back on Dukakis, who instead of attacking back at Bush, attempted to run an issue-centered, positive campaign. Dukakis lost in a landslide. Needless to say, after that incident, attack ads became a staple of every Presidential campaign. But, even before then, politics were never a dignified affair.
As far back as 1836, Davy Crockett, a Whig Party attack dog, accused Martin Van Buren of frequently dressing in drag. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was caned, nearly to death, on the senate floor by Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina. In 1880, James Garfield beat James Blaine by telling Catholics that Blaine had made derogatory comments involving Irish-Americans and alcoholism. In 1928, Herbert Hoover destroyed Al Smith’s candidacy by accusing Smith, a Catholic, of wanting to turn the United States over to Vatican rule (read about that campaign if you want to be really angry for a while). In 1960, John F. Kennedy won crucial victories in Texas and Illinois with the help of thousands of dead voters (and used wiretapping techniques that Richard Nixon would later borrow).
Needless to say, the behavior of politicians has never been virtuous or dignified; we only know how undignified it is because we have more platforms to access that information. So it goes, I guess. And this will likely be the status quo, at least in the short run. You know what, though? I think this trend may be a good thing.
Up until the Johnson administration, politicians were treated like nigh-infallible gods by all but the most radical opposition. To see the results of that ideology, look at McCarthyism, where people believed a pathologically corrupt junior senator from Wisconsin knew a cabal of communists at all levels of government. When we view politicians as men rather than demigods, we set lower standards for their conduct, but we also will set higher standards for their policies and issues (at least I hope). And if that turns out to be the case, then it will do a world of good for this country.
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