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Political Civility is a Myth

By Tyler Bauer

Ever since President Trump’s rise from businessman to politician, many have taken issue with a number of things he has said and done. Trump’s supporters will say “he’s just telling it like it is,” while Trump’s opponents will claim that his lack of civility is below the office of the presidency. A complete list of President Trump’s “uncivil” quotes can be found here.

Many people are saying that President Trump’s vulgar language represents the end of civility in American politics. To Trump’s opponents, having a foul-mouthed, loose cannon president emboldens the worst people among us, leading to the degradation of civility in our civility. There’s only one problem with that theory – we’ve never been all that civil.

Even before our country’s founding, Americans were tarring and feathering British government officials. After our independence, Americans were tarring and feathering their own tax collectors during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. They were even tarring and feathering religious leaders Joseph Smith and Father John Bapst for political reasons during the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, African-Americans, German-Americans, religious leaders, and political activists were all tarred and feathered at one point or another, all for political reasons. Tarring and feathering has only relatively recently fallen out of favor in American politics.

Our earliest political elites also lacked civility. In 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In a duel two years later, future President Andrew Jackson killed a lawyer who accused him of cheating on a racehorse bet and insulted his wife.

Duels weren’t the only way politicians attacked each other in the nineteenth century. In 1856, Representative Preston Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina, attacked Senator Charles Sumner, a Republican from Massachusetts, with a cane. Unlike the aforementioned duels, this attack actually took place on the floor of the United States Senate. At the time, the caning of Charles Sumner was hailed as “the breakdown of reasoned discourse” and was credited with making the Civil War possible.

That same year, abolitionist John Brown and his band of Free State activists brutally dismembered five men in Kansas. Brown and his followers killed these men to advance their anti-slavery cause, but none of the victims actually owned slaves. The killing of these five men led to a series of skirmishes which saw Kansas and Missouri turn into a guerilla battlefield over the issue of slavery. While Brown’s cause was certainly noble, his tactics were by no means civil.

As we all know, the end of slavery didn’t put an end to race-based political violence. Lynchings were common all throughout the South following the abolition of slavery, and they continued through the Civil Rights Movement. Lynchings even occurred in Northern states like Indiana, where thousands of whites abducted three African-American men and lynched two of them in Marion, Indiana in 1930.

Any analysis of political incivility would not be complete without including the Birmingham Church Bombing of 1963. Four African-American children were killed when a homemade bomb was detonated during Sunday morning services. In the 1960s, bombings were so commonplace that Birmingham became colloquially known as “Bombingham” and its African-American residents were always at risk of becoming the next victim of political violence.

My point in providing a brief history of political violence in the United States is this – American politics has never been all that civil. As much as we like to pretend there was a “golden age” where we all could get together and discuss our opposing viewpoints, the “golden age” is a myth. In fact, relative to our past, it seems as though we may be living in the most civil period in American political history.

Should we be better? Yes. Should we discuss our ideas without resorting to name calling or violence? Yes. But let’s not pretend that President Trump is so shockingly uncivil, and let’s not pretend that the other side of the aisle is full of crazy extremists who can’t be reasoned with. We’re actually pretty civil – and pretty similar – compared to those who came before us.

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