TOTH: The death of civil discourse

As a member of the Independent Party, “Hear all Sides” is a mantra I take seriously. John Stuart Mill was largely right when he wrote that the marketplace of ideas is essential if one wishes to find truth. I count conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, socialists and libertarians among my friends, and I take all of their ideas seriously; after all, I’m often wrong, and the best way to find out what I really believe is to compare my ideas to those of people who think differently from me.

On Tuesday, Ann Coulter came to debate with the Yale Political Union on the topic “Resolved: The Left is destroying America.” But Coulter and pundits like her, whatever their political leanings may be, are chiefly responsible for destroying America — neither the left nor the right should bear the blame.

Coulter stands for the degradation of civil discourse. Last night, in her 20-odd minutes of remarks, she managed to treat the issue of torture flippantly, implicitly compare Obama to Hitler, paint all Muslim countries as either led by or comprised of “lunatics,” create pet names such as “Lil’ Timmy [Geithner]” for officials she dislikes and advocate for a “shut-your-yap tax.”

As if that weren’t enough of an appeal to the lowest common denominator, she managed to depict Democrats as “flash mobs” of “cool kids” who banded together to elect “an idiot” — Barack Obama — to the presidency. Perhaps it’s old-fashioned, but I believe that whatever one thinks of a president, one is at least bound to give him the respect and dignity afforded him by his office.

What’s wrong with Coulter is that she doesn’t care what people who have different viewpoints think. In her entire performance on Tuesday, she did not make one coherent, fact-based argument that could have withstood rigorous scrutiny — which she avoided by leaving directly after students asked her questions, instead of staying to listen to speeches responding to hers.

Coulter is part of a worrisome movement taking place in America today of elected officials and candidates relying on rhetoric and sound bites instead of concrete arguments, policy positions and records of service. It’s this reliance on one-liners and rigid subservience to a party line that legitimizes the average voter’s not paying attention to elections or issues and voting based on superficial factors. Coulter and her compatriots are telling people that it’s all right to no longer have to think about issues — that it’s acceptable to simply demonize anyone who disagrees with you as some sort of enemy.

When he chose not to run for re-election last year, former Senator Evan Bayh said he was sick of members of Congress “maneuvering for short-term political advantage rather than focusing on the greater good.” This is a result of the lack of civil discourse we are faced with today. We’ve entered a strange age where governing and campaigning seem to be the same thing — with elections (at least for the House) on such a short cycle, and with 24/7 media coverage of everything a candidate might say or do, elected officers can’t stop campaigning and start governing.

If a congressman should happen to reach across the aisle to compromise on anything, he’s viewed as an enemy. His willingness to compromise — to be pragmatic, to get something done! — is seen as a kind of traitorous heresy or betrayal of beliefs. He’s caught in a position of being forced to rigidly stick to a party platform even if it’s not in his constituents’ best interests. Orthodoxy, not some sort of vision of how to realistically govern, is the quality he needs most.

Despite all of this, let’s assume that an individual congressman somehow manages to forge a bipartisan alliance and votes against his party on a moderate bill. What happens to him? Unfortunately, given the way congressional apportionment (and gerrymandering) works in the vast majority of districts, he’s going to face a primary election that’s much more important than the general election. Therefore, if he wishes to be re-elected, he has to appeal to fringe groups in his party — which tend to be the groups that are most easily affected by the kind of “mob mentality” that Coulter railed against but encourages herself. Elected officials who dare to think for themselves are simply lumped in with the rest of the “idiots” the pundits disagree with.

Whether we like it or not, in order to get anything positive done in government, we have to compromise. In the last few years, both sides have done a terrible job doing it — like Coulter, they choose to disrespect their opponents rather than engage with them or try to understand their opinions. Civil discourse is dying — if it’s not already dead — and what Coulter and the rest of the pundits are doing is legitimizing its death, and thereby destroying the structures that have allowed the American government to succeed since its beginning.

Patrick Toth is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact him at pat.toth@yale.edu.

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