Last week’s presidential debate certainly hit its low point when Governor Romney turned to President Obama and said, “I predict, sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease.” Or perhaps you thought it hit rock bottom when Obama replied, “That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
What? No, you must have missed it. Certainly, you’ve heard that Romney referred to Obama as “a hideous hermaphroditical character, who has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” But then again, that was prompted by the president referring to the governor as “the son of a half-bred Indian squaw.”
Of course you missed them — they were never said, at least not in this campaign. But the first exchange occurred between Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, the second between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and both stand to remind us of a valuable lesson. Before we join the pundits in calling this campaign the ugliest ever, maybe we can take a deep breath, look back, and take solace in the fact that our candidates are no longer beating each other over the head with walking sticks, as men of Congress did as late as the 19th century.
To be fair, it is far from a syllogism to say that since our elected officials are no longer dueling or striking each other down with canes, we have crossed the threshold of acceptable political discourse. However, the combativeness and contentious hostility of the last few months should not be something we instinctually lament. In fact, this very incivility is integral to our political process.
Are we really to say that our historical inheritance is worse off for Cicero’s orations against the conspiracies of Catiline? Imagine the horror on cable news if Barack Obama took a page out of the Roman orator’s book: “How long, Governor Romney, will you abuse our patience? And for how long will that madness of yours mock us? To what end will your unbridled audacity hurl itself?”
Just as war is the common state for civilization, incivility is for politics. By our nature, this is just who we are. To expect our presidential candidates to actively quash, or at least miraculously hide, their fierce personal stake in their election would be to expect them to be even more sociopathic than we already do.
More importantly, the climate of incivility creates an indispensible test — a political purgatory of sort — for our future leaders. Outside of the election, our president is relatively isolated from direct personal confrontation. We don’t have anything close to the system in Great Britain, where the prime minister is subjected to the regular questioning and scorn of his opponents. But, for two months every four years, we let two men slug it out.
The obsession with civility is a quest for an imaginary magic bullet. The fact that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are passionate, fierce, and combative is not indicative of a fallen political era — it is a sign that they are men who realize, and actually deeply care, that ideas have consequences. In practical terms, a “presidential” persona is one forged in the stresses, assaults and tortures of the job.
Beyond the political disagreements, there is a much more personal aspect to the competition of the campaign. On stage, in front of the nation, they are challenging the core of the other man: Do you have the resolve it takes to handle the next four years?
So tonight, it’s likely we will see a lot of the same fireworks from last week. And, depending on your political persuasions, you’ll either be cracking up or grinding your teeth. The jabs will be prepared, personal and pretty much fictitious.
However, before we clear our throats and bewail the fall of American discourse, be mindful of the virtues — qualities inseparable from the political history of mankind — that come from the combat that is politics. At the end of the day, we need a president who can hold up against Bob Schieffer for 90 minutes – and that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Harry Graver is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .