Ethnic Politics

Middle ground and compromise abandoned as US politics reaches peak partisanism

That country’s elections have become rancorous affairs at the best of times. In the aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, however, it feels like the rhetoric has been turned up to 11.

At the same time, there has been an ongoing debate in the United States about the place for “civility” in public debate.

You may remember back in June when Trump’s press secretary was denied service at a restaurant and it became international news. That was only one incident in dozens during the past year that has raised the question: Where does an orderly but liberal society draw the boundaries between the personal and the political?

Talking with Christiane Amanpour, of CNN, Clinton said she was not keen on the idea of respectful protest.

“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about,” she said. “That’s why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and-or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”

The problem with this formulation, it should be clear, is that it relies on an acceptance by one’s opponents that they have to live under a double standard. Whether the moment calls for calm and sober debate depends entirely on who is in power and who is in opposition.

To be clear, this unrealistic assumption seems to be held by both sides. The days of President Obama and the Tea Party seem like ancient history now, but there was a big argument for civility back then. Back then it was the news.

In 2011, a mentally ill man attempted to murder Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and there was strong media condemnation of Republican rhetoric – including in New Zealand – for having ratcheted up the tension and having created a charged atmosphere. Conservatives took angry umbrage at the suggestion they were responsible.

Last year, a Bernie Sanders volunteer tried to carry out a mass assassination of congressional Republicans while they practised baseball. It was then the turn of conservatives to connect the violence with Democratic rhetoric while most of the media skated over this aspect of the shooting. In other words, a complete role reversal.

The problem with the one-rule-for-the-goodies and one-rule-for-the-baddies is the fact that nobody sees themselves as the villains. Clinton might see her opponents as the “bad guys” hell-bent on ruining her country. But it’s a fair bet that Republicans don’t see things that way.

None of this is to stray into moral relativism. There is such a thing as right and wrong and a difference between the two. The New Zealand state sanctions things I consider to be objectively morally wrong every day.

But the same can probably be said for every New Zealander. We all have things we hate about the current state of our law, culture and society.

And for so long as we remain a liberal democracy, however, we must recognise that we are never going to get complete consensus on who is right.

What we can agree, hopefully, are realistic rules of engagement that prevent our disagreements from spilling over and contaminating the rest of our lives. For the rest, we have to count on the good sense and humanity of our fellow citizens, without which we are lost anyway.

We can work our way through our differences with civility and political debate or we can use intimidation and cultural warfare.

From time-to-time, there are New Zealanders who will advocate American-style cultural warfare for this country. They scorn good manners as a form of weakness in the face of a threat. The more radical equate it with complicity.

I would find this attitude a lot more persuasive if those denigrating civility could articulate some kind of exit strategy. How will the other side be prevented from using the same tactics? How do you stop escalation? How do you know you’re going to be the one standing at the end of it?

Because without answers to those questions, advocating for the harassment of one’s political foes looks a lot like immediate self-gratification. It feels good to be angry – and it feels very good to act on it. Like most forms of impulsive indulgence, however, the high quickly wears off and the consequences continue to be felt a good deal longer.

So, for the time being, I am more sympathetic with the views of former president Barack Obama. “Vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise,” he once said. “It prevents learning – since after all, why should we listen to a ‘fascist’ or a ‘socialist’ or a ‘Right-wing nut’ or a ‘Left-wing nut’?”

But then, that was in 2010. Which suddenly feels like a very long time ago.

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