Ben Voth: Think America is uncivil today? Just look at our past

Ben Voth, director of debate and speech programs at SMU, writes about the lack of civil discourse on the airways and in public society in America.

By Ben Voth

America appears to be caught in a dizzying "spiral of cynicism." At least, that's how communication scholars have described the national frustration with the anger, hyperbole and personal attacks that substitute for authentic political debate. But before we resign ourselves to an unparalleled breakdown in civility, we can let history be our guide and see that this spiral has taken darker turns in America's past.

 The early days of our nation saw politicians willing to draw guns to defend their political honor – most famously, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in 1804. Dueling was so pervasive that many states tried to outlaw it, but the practice continued in the South until the mid-19th century. (Fortunately for Chris Matthews  in 2005, former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller could only appeal to a distant past when he angrily declared to the political commentator: "I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel.")

 Today, we lament the incivilities imposed upon women in politics. But in the 1830s in Philadelphia, while abolitionist Angelina Grimke spoke as part of the first public debate between a man and a woman at Pennsylvania Hall, an angry mob armed with bricks and rotten tomatoes gathered outside its doors. Hours later, the hall was burned to the ground.

 More than 170 years later, America has its first female speaker of the House and third female secretary of state. Still, not long after the 2008 election, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's church in Alaska was burned. We have come a long way from the 19th century – but we clearly still have a ways to go.

  In the realm of religion and politics, few remember Al Smith, the Catholic presidential candidate who lost to Herbert Hoover  in 1928. Smith endured the public taunting of the then-powerful Ku Klux Klan. At an Oklahoma City campaign stop, the Klan welcomed Smith's train as it arrived by night with dozens of its signature burning crosses. The display so enraged the candidate that he called his audience "stupid" more than a half-dozen times.

 One student of this painful history was John F. Kennedy's speechwriter. Pierre Salinger advised the Catholic candidate before his 1960 Houston speech to skeptical Protestant ministers: "They're tired of being called bigots." Kennedy proceeded to answer the public attacks on Catholicism with a stirring message of religious tolerance in America.

 Like Kennedy's pivotal speech, civil political discourse has elevated Americans out of cynicism throughout our history, even in the nation's darkest hours. America's Civil War, for example, was anything but, pitting brother against brother and taking more than 600,000 human lives. But the political bonds that allowed the nation to survive were formed in 1858 during the crucibles of seven public debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln  as they vied for a U.S. Senate seat.

Although their lengthy debates on slavery reflected the country's deepest divisions, the men's respect for each other endured. Douglas won that election, but when Lincoln defeated him two years later for the presidency, Douglas held Lincoln's hat during his first inaugural address. More important, their verbal contests had helped the Great Emancipator rhetorically envision the healing of a nation.

 A century later, another great orator, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., likewise would issue a call for reasoned debate and rhetoric during the volatile civil rights era. "Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they cannot communicate," he wrote in his memoir of the nonviolent 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.

The lives of Lincoln, Kennedy and King were cut short by assassins – all terribly dark turns for this country. Yet their powerful words have prevailed over those violent acts and continue to inspire Americans to civic action. Indeed, they played an important role in the 2008 political debates that lifted the nation out of cynicism to elect its first African-American president.

We all play a role in learning the lessons of our history and contributing to political dialogue that focuses on real issues. We can support the teaching of debate in our schools, insist on civility from elected officials and turn off the empty commentators. And as each generation learns from the twists and turns of previous generations, we will emerge from the spiral of cynicism – as we have many times before.

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