The Tone of Politics

Every four years, people have a big argument about the tone of politics and how we have lost civility in public discourse. Try to guess which presidential candidates said the following in the course of campaigning:

“(My opponent) is a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who wants to start a war with France. While he’s not busy importing mistresses from Europe, he’s trying to marry one of his sons to (a princess of England). Haven’t we had enough monarchy in America?”

“If (my opponent) wins, murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, the nation black with crimes. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames? Female chastity violated? Children writhing on a pole?”

Both were uttered in the presidential campaign of 1800, the first by Thomas Jefferson, regarding John Adams, the second by Adams, regarding Jefferson. They make modern campaign attacks, such as “an out of touch millionaire’s just declared war,” or an ad depicting small town America under Obama’s rule as having been hit some manner of apocalypse, seem pretty tame, don’t they?

People labor under the impression that we have fallen from some kind of lofty, civil perch of 200 years ago into modern filth and dross when, in reality, it’s rather the opposite. In our earliest elections, candidates came right out and stated that their opponent would, essentially, unleash hell on earth and that large men would come and assault you in the night because the other guy won. Today, the ads aren’t exactly gleaming and pure, but at least they talk about issues other than a literal apocalyptic calamity striking our fair country just because we picked the wrong guy (well, mostly).

In late September, Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney, made news when she told the press and rival politicians to “stop it.” She contended that the portrayal of Mitt Romney as a heartless man who was out of touch with voters was inaccurate, and that “(running in an election) is hard.” More recently than that, a pro-Obama ad starring Samuel L. Jackson has come under fire for repeated use of the line “Wake the f— up.” Studies have shown that people dislike such ads, shying away from vulgarity, profanity and direct attacks in politics, but also that such ads work.

We focus too much on “dirty campaigning” and don’t even know the history of dirty campaigning in America. Worse, while we’re arguing about whether some rich guy who wants to rule the country went too far, we’re ignoring real issues such as wars on the rights of segments of the population, or the growth of government. Compared to the attacks flung by our founding fathers, we have incredibly tame campaigns. The next time you think someone’s gone too far because they swore, or said the other guy doesn’t care, just remember – it could be a lot worse.

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