Democrats, who have long posed as the party of peaceniks and doves, have been anything but during the great rhetorical war of 2013. In fact, the party of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter has been mad as hell as of late, leading an offensive of bombastic insults and rhetorical bullying that has dominated the government shutdown. It’s a perfect storm, with Democrats leading the pace.
President Obama called Republicans “reckless and irresponsible,” casting the Grand Old Party in the role of villain. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, referred to Republicans as “anarchists,” and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, deemed Republicans “legislative arsonists.”
“Public attacks make it personal. The response, the entire conversation, goes to the attack, not the problem at hand. The moment there’s an audience, posturing takes over,” said Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute and author of five etiquette books.
Insults have hidden risks because people don’t always equate aggressive behavior with authority. Roger L. Simon, founder of Pajamas Media, has suggested that Republicans counter Democratic acrimony with a Ronald Reagan-style “charm offensive” to win over disaffected voters.
There are a bunch out there. The Pew Research Center revealed that 77 percent of the public is either angry or frustrated with the government while Gallup found that almost half of Americans said the budget debate was an attempt by both sides to gain political advantage.
Yet unity in the proverbial foxhole has its place, too.
“I want to publicly praise Speaker John Boehner for standing firm against the Democrat government shutdown and their refusal to negotiate on a law they themselves have delayed and exempted themselves from,” said Rep. Steve Stockman, Texas Republican.
“Democrats have hurled every insult imaginable, such as ‘terrorist,’ ‘arsonist’ and ‘murderers’ against Americans who differ with President Obama. Despite their threats and childish behavior, the speaker has been steadfast in his vision to reduce the size and scope of government and treat everyone fairly,” Mr. Stockman said.
None of this is a shock to Mark Gerzon, a conflict resolution mediator who co-designed and facilitated the Bipartisan Congressional Retreats in 1997 and 1999, dubbed “civility retreats” by the press of the day.
“As someone who has spent 20 years in the crossfire between the armies of left and right, the government shutdown does not surprise me. What surprises me is how long it took for the long-defective partisan machine to actually break down,” Mr. Gerzon said.
“The blame game can be a winning strategy at election time. Election time now never ends. It used to be that politicians played by slash-and-burn election rules for a few months before November every other year. Now they play by those rules all the time. There is almost no ‘governing’ anymore. It is all electioneering.”
The 24/7 media, of course, are there to chronicle every moment.
“Incivility, dishonesty and character attacks that once were a bad habit during campaign season have become a way of life,” Mr. Gerzon said.
He thinks a civility retreat would work again as long as the American people make it clear that they want the political system fixed and that the event has “political muscle.” Implementation of recommended changes and enforcement of agreements “must not be left to party leaders to act upon because they will not follow through.”
He recommends a bipartisan team of lawmakers who are “transparent and public” in their deliberations. There is a place for very private discussion, too.
Some say the hubbub is appropriate, particularly when it comes from Republican tea party senators.
“Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, all of these guys were all elected running against Obamacare, promising constituents they would do everything they could to end it. What would you do, break that promise to your constituents? They want them to act like this. I see it all day on Twitter. ‘Thank you, Ted Cruz, for standing up for us,’” said CNN analyst S.E. Cupp.
But former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said nothing can be accomplished when lawmakers talk past one another.
“Sniping is part of the political process, but unless both parties sit down at the table and begin speaking to one another, nothing happens,” said Mr. Huntsman, who founded NoLabels, a bipartisan grass-roots group bearing the motto “Stop fighting, start fixing,” when running for the Republican presidential nomination three years ago.
Mr. Post, the great-grandson of the original manners maven Emily Post, advises the combatants to put down their verbal spears and huddle.
“As long as the media encourages this behavior by covering it, the politicians will keep doing it. And that is a problem.” Mr. Post said.” The public sighs and says, ‘Oh, here’s one more person saying idiotic things to the camera.’ It’s like a broken record.”
Things could be worse. Historical accounts reveal multiple incidents of confrontations between lawmakers and other officials that resulted in fisticuffs, or assaults with pistols, canes and fireplace tongs.
“Let’s remember that the Founding Fathers foresaw this problem. As they formulated the Constitution, they said that every generation — which Jefferson then considered to be every 19 years — would have to rewrite the rules of governance. It’s time for all of us to step forward and fulfill that promise,” mediator Mr. Gerzon advised.