The death of civil political discourse: A response

I got lots -- and lots -- of responses to my piece on Tuesday declaring the death of civilized political discourse.  One came from Quin Hillyer, a columnist at the conservative National Review and a one-time candidate for Congress in the special election in Alabama's 1st district last year. Quin's response was provocative without descending into rank partisanship and I thought a worthwhile perspective to add to the debate. I asked him if I could publish it, he agreed. To be clear: I am not endorsing his view -- simply adding it to the conversation. Below are Hilyer's thoughts -- edited only for grammar. Disagree? Send me a response at chris.cillizza@washpost.com.

Chris Cillizza wrote a very important column about how people thinking about politics increasingly believe, and say, that not only are their philosophical opponents wrong, but that they are stupid, or even moronic, and that their very motives are suspect, even evil. Cillizza rightly argues that this is a disturbing trend that should be resisted whenever possible.


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens as President Barack Obama speaks to media, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before a meeting with between the president and Congressional leaders to discuss the situation in Syria. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

But, at risk of doing nothing more than prove his point even more strongly, I actually think these attitudes run more one way than the other -- at least in political discourse by elected officials and well established news outlets and journals of opinion.

In short, I think those in supposedly responsible positions left of center far more often attribute stupidity or evil motives to their opponents than do those right of center. If you do a Google search of top officials or media people (not random bloggers, but publications with a substantial following), I bet you would find far, far more on the left accusing conservatives of being stupid or morons than you will find conservatives saying that about liberals. You'll also find far more lefties calling conservatives racist and xenophobic, etc., than you will find conservatives calling lefties Communists or similar epithets.

This is not to say that conservatives don't say some rather harsh things about their opponents. Of course they do, especially in the reader comment sections. But you'll find Nancy Pelosi or some network reporter questioning conservatives' motives, intelligence, or basic decency in ways that John Boehner or George Will don't do about libs.

Pelosi, for example has accused Republicans of racism, of being “un-American” and “unpatriotic,” among a host of other epithets. Harry Reid, of course, has called various Republicans just about every name in the book, with “liars” being one of his favorites. He’s also fond of variations of “evil.” But I just did a quick search – and, I admit, I might have missed something – but I couldn’t find any examples of John Boehner saying anything nearly as harsh about Democrats, liberals, or Obama, or of Mitch McConnell doing so.

Of course, the late Ted Kennedy was notorious for cheapening debate in this way. Examples are legion; I thought it was particularly egregious to accuse President G. W. Bush of “bribing” foreign leaders in support of a war that was a deliberate “fraud” “made up in Texas.

I know that in writing this I will be bombarded with examples of mean things conservatives have said about liberals. The examples will be filled of Ann Coulterisms and maybe of talk radio sins. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about mainstream elected and appointed officials and established journals like National Review, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times (and, of course, the Washington Post, although its standards usually tend to be fairly well maintained). Again, the difference is not in vehemence of argument, but in the frequency of characterizing the other side as stupid or particularly ill-motivated. I really think the Left does this to conservatives more often than vice versa.

I’ve been a provocateur myself, although a close reading usually will find extremely careful use of words and of accusations. A thorough review of my writings will also find a large number of kind words for some of those I disagree with, and defenses of liberals suffering tough times. All of us err at times, and I’m sure I have. But I try not to attack motives, but only actions.

The point, though, is this: Chris Cillizza is correct that we should strive to at least consider the other point of view and, until rather conclusively demonstrated otherwise, to attribute opposing views not to evil intent or idiocy but rather to mistaken judgment.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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