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In Today's Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tongue?

'Stalin or Jefferson!'

Charisse Carney-Nunes received hostile e-mails when she was erroneously linked to a video about President Obama.
Charisse Carney-Nunes received hostile e-mails when she was erroneously linked to a video about President Obama. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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"There are enough good people who believe in the flag and the Bible to seize and control the Government of America! . . . We must make our choice in the presence of atheistic Communistic influences! It is Tammany or Independence Hall! It is the Russian primer or the Holy Bible! It is the Red Flag or the Stars and Stripes! It is Lenin or Lincoln -- Stalin or Jefferson!"

That rousing call to action against a president could be stripped straight from the Web sites of today's Tea Party protesters, and it brought lusty cheers from 10,000 Americans outraged over what they perceived as invasive federal power.

It was the summer of 1936, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seeking his second term as president. He already had closed the banks in an effort to pry the country out of the Depression and established the sweeping safety net of the New Deal. Gerald L.K. Smith, the minister who delivered that jeremiad at a third-party convention in Cleveland, was merely a warm-up act for the invective to come from the Rev. Charles Edward Coughlin. An early Roosevelt supporter, Coughlin turned on the president and depicted him as a tool of the devil in weekly radio addresses that reached 40 million people. Still, Roosevelt won by a landslide.

"From time to time, I go back to find the golden age of civility," said Michael Barone, lead author of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics, "and it has proved elusive." He cites Coughlin. He cites fistfights over policy at the mid-century Georgetown dinner parties so often lauded for their bipartisan bonhomie. "I'm not sure we are in a greater era of incivility."

A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams "a hideously hermaphroditical character." Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr "bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country," an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.

Go through the nation's history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval -- illustrated in recent decades by the contentious judicial confirmation fights. Conservatives say those fights began with the Democratic-led verbal savaging of Supreme Court nominee Robert J. Bork in 1987.

The spread of the Internet in the mid-1990s, along with the rise of conservative talk radio and 24-hour cable news programming, added a new dimension, however.

"The thing that is really important now is the way the Internet has changed the relationship between the elite and the non-elite. Everybody has the opportunity to be a great communicator for 15 minutes," said Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study who studies modern political theory.

An Opportunity for All

Now everybody wants to grab the bullhorn and holler through it.

That level of participation is a good thing for a healthy democracy, Allen and other scholars agree.

Red-faced and blue-faced insistence online and on television "brings us to this very wobbly sense of where we are right now: Is this a sign we are falling apart, or that people are just participating again? Or both?" said Thomas Benson, a professor of rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University.

"So we get this puzzling image of Senator Specter in my home town, and some big guy bulging out of his shirt says, 'I've read this [health-care] bill!' And he is so angry it's a declaration of his impotence as an ordinary citizen, but at the same time he's asserting his participation as a citizen, and both things are right."

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