by Bruce S. Thornton
Earlier this month, Republican David Frum and Democrat William A. Galston published a manifesto in the Washington Post announcing the birth of a new political movement, No Labels, the first meeting of which was December 13. The “hyper-polarization of our politics,” Frum and Galston write, “thwarts an adult conversation about our common future.” Thus the need “to expand the space within which citizens and elected officials can conduct that conversation without fear of social or political retribution.” If not they warn, our political system will fail, for it “does not work if politicians treat the process as a war in which the overriding goal is to thwart the adversary.”
To correct this problem, No Labels will:
Carefully monitor the conduct of their elected representatives. They will highlight those officials who reach across the aisle to help solve the country’s problems and criticize those who do not. They will call out politicians whose rhetoric exacerbates those problems, and they will establish lines that no one should cross. Politicians, media personalities and opinion leaders who recklessly demonize their opponents should be on notice that they can no longer do so with impunity.
The ultimate point will be to foster a “politics of problem-solving.”
The contradictions of this manifesto are apparent, as John Podhoretz has pointed out:
In the name of broadening the political discussion, a group called No Labels will come into being with the purpose of … labeling. If you ‘recklessly demonize’ your ‘opponents,’ you will ‘no longer’ be able to ‘do so with impunity.’ They will ‘establish bright lines no one should cross.’ In other words, cross the line and we will label you a ‘reckless demonizer.’
In short, free political speech will be circumscribed by someone’s subjective taste about what is acceptable speech and what isn’t.
More important, like other calls for “civility” or attacks on the “politics of personal destruction,” a movement like No Labels in fact displays a dislike for democratic equality and freedom.
Historically, democratic speech has been rough, vulgar, and insulting, often at a level light-years beyond what we today consider acceptable. In ancient Athens, politicians were pilloried publicly, on stage in comedy or in public speeches in the equivalent of our Congress. Taking bribes and homosexual prostitution were favorite charges for smearing politicians. As classicist K.J. Dove pointed out about ancient comedy in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., “there is not one [politician] who is not attacked and ridiculed” in ancient comedy. “All these leading men, and many minor politicians besides, are uniformly treated by the comic poets as vain, greedy, dishonest and self-seeking,” and accused of being “ugly, diseased, prostituted perverts, the sons of whores by foreigners who bribed their way into citizenship.” Political debate in the Athenian Assembly was not much better. Accusing your opponent of accepting foreign bribes, sordid sexual escapades, and disreputable parentage were standard charges.
Nor was American democratic debate conducted with the powdered wig and silk knee-breeches civility of our idealizations. The charge that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings began as a political smear. Abraham Lincoln was called the “missing link” and the “original gorilla.” The New York Times ’ Paris correspondent called for an embargo on portraits of Lincoln, for “the person represented in these pictures looks so much like a man condemned to the gallows, that large numbers of them have been imposed on the people here by the shopkeepers as Dumollard, the famous murderer of servant girls, lately guillotined near Lyons. Such a face is enough to ruin the best of causes.” From jingles about Warren G. Harding’s illegitimate daughter, to caricatures of “Tricky Dick” Nixon as a used-car salesman, American political speech has always used invective, personal attacks, and vulgar insult in disputes with opponents.
Indeed, from the beginnings of democracy in ancient Athens, elitist critics have focused on just this impudent vulgarity typical of ordinary citizens presuming to speak publicly to their betters on political matters. To anti-democrats like Plato, free speech was a manifestation of a political freedom more accurately understood as rampant license: “Are they not free,” Plato has Socrates sneer in the Republic, “and is not the city full of freedom and outspokenness — a man may say and do what he likes?”
For elitists like Plato, free speech was an expression of the misguided equality that lay at the heart of democratic freedom. So too the 4th-century orator Isocrates, who accused the people of looking on “insolence as democracy, lawlessness as liberty, impudence of speech as equality, and license to do what they pleased as happiness.” Disliking free speech, then, goes along with distaste for the political equality that free speech is a manifestation of, an equality that disregards distinctions of education, wealth, or family.
Contemporary complaints about “incivility” in our political speech usually have this same whiff of anti-democratic elitism about them. Frum and Galston give the game away when they evoke the “new politics of problem-solving.” This formulation assumes, however, that politics should be the purview of technical elites who have the knowledge necessary for solving problems and so are necessarily undemocratic. This “techno-politics,” as French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls it, also happens to be the central tenet of progressive politics. Just get those low-brow, vulgar people and their selfish irrational interests and beliefs out of the way, and the technicians can create the brave new world. But as history shows us, technical elites must reduce the power and freedom of the rest of us in order for them to put their schemes into practice.
Contrary to Frum and Galston, politics is not about “problem solving.” Politics is about passionately held beliefs in fundamental principles that can’t always be reconciled with other beliefs and principles. And that passion will emerge when people talk about and defend those beliefs and principles. Trying to moderate or police the clashing expressions of that passion based on some subjective notions of “civility” or decorum will necessarily compromise the freedom to express those beliefs. Nor need we worry that political leaders will be hampered in fulfilling their obligations because of their “fear of social or political retribution .” Anyone so thin-skinned that he will not act on principle to avoid getting his feelings hurt is probably a lousy politician — as our current president illustrates.
If you truly prize free speech and democratic equality, then you have to accept that at times political speech will be raucous, insulting, even vulgar. But this is a small price to pay for the historically unprecedented freedom of millions of diverse, ordinary people to speak freely and publicly in their own style, no matter how disturbing to others, about what’s important to them. Political “labels” aren’t what we need to worry about, but rather the eagerness of many to control and hence limit free speech.
©2010 Bruce S. Thornton