As President Trump hopefully recovers from the coronavirus, it would be wise if we, too, take a break from the toxic political culture of this election. It would actually be healthy for the body politic. At a minimum, we need to assess the damage.
The rapid descent of civility in politics has accelerated to its lowest levels. Never before have we encountered such a spectacle in political life. You think there was bad blood between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800? That was a pinprick compared to this bloodbath—a gladiatorial contest involving not only the candidates but also their ardent supporters.
And, apparently, you don’t need to step onto a debate platform to partake. Nowadays, family members are cast against one another at holiday meals. Friends refuse to speak, longstanding bonds irrevocably severed, sides taken, and warring camps created. Each accuses the other of falling from grace, acting obtusely naïve, and being morally beyond the pale. Neighbors draw lines in the sand with dueling political lawn signs—MAGA baseball caps are the new kryptonite.
Even children are not spared, used as vetoes in these political war games. How many parents have said, “I will not allow you to visit that house of Trump supporters?” This is protective parenting at its most partisan.
And partisanship is not confined to our polarizing president. Commercials for or against candidates—even for congressional seats—are dialed-up to the most extreme forms of negative campaigning. The press, almost daily, gives credence to “fake news.” And during the Democratic primaries, perceived frontrunners were treated as foreign enemies. Mike Bloomberg never got off the mat. Kamala Harris blasted Joe Biden, insinuating that he was a racist. That’s a serious charge in today’s racial climate. Now, as his running-mate, she laughs it off by saying, “That’s politics.”
But the first presidential debate was a species of party politics that defied description. Did it qualify as an actual debate? The candidates would have benefitted from having cutmen in their corners. Honestly, we might have had a China Syndrome on our hands. This catastrophe found no bottom. At least it was unrelated to the Wuhan Province.
The debate spectacle was one continuous interruption—all boorishness and berating. But both candidates were not equally to blame. President Trump demonstrated once more how much difficulty he has playing nicely with others—the old Queens schoolyard of his youth must have been hell.
The coarsening of our political culture is so pervasive, it has manifested itself all throughout this campaign season, with the debate providing a particularly vivid demonstration of how sordid is has become. Almost no meaningful information about the candidates could be deciphered. True to form, the president failed to complete a thought, dashing off on tangents and leaving all logical connections in limbo. His tirades relied on his one true talent—turning groups against each other. He will be remembered as one of the world’s great finger pointers.
Biden’s performance was beyond evaluation. He appeared punch drunk and barely entered the fray. Now, with his advancing age, Biden has the gravitas of a grandfather no one listens to anymore. The opening of his mouth is an adventure in damaging sound bites. Not allowing the former vice president to get a word in edgewise was a disastrous mistake; Trump should have left some of the oxygen on the debate stage for his Democratic opponent, just in case a campaign-sinking thought came to him.
Biden was so frustrated by the chaos that Trump lives for, he at least twice referred to the president as a “clown,” and once told him to “shut up.” That was a cringe-producing moment. Imagine if Trump replied, “Need I remind you: I am the President of the United States. You don’t have to like me, but you must respect the office I hold.” That response would have been dramatic and dignified, but also absurd. Not for a single day has this president conducted himself in a manner befitting the office to which he was elected.
Our Founding Fathers would be appalled. Democratic dialogue is nonexistent. Civility and mutual respect have disappeared from the public square and ivy green. Cancellation culture, that cancerous menace that has infected us all, has metastasized to the public sphere. Fear over what is said and what must remain unspoken—and the drumbeat of rage that demands silence—is everywhere around us.
Our Founding Fathers would be appalled. Democratic dialogue is nonexistent.
We have completely lost all understanding of the First Amendment and freedom of speech, our most recognized liberty. At the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787, our Founding Fathers debated with great foresight the rights we were to receive. Their manner was straightforward: read books, compare constitutions, and come prepared to deliver your argument. They believed the American public would learn by example from these debates, and that they would become a model for their own civic engagement.
Freedom of speech obviously involves much more than public debates on politics. It doesn’t only apply to candidates—the general public has the right to speak, as well. But more importantly, the exercise of freedom of speech also includes a more contemplative freedom of thought. To think differently and tolerate differences of opinion is part of the same liberty, one that carries a reciprocal obligation.
But that freedom today is under constant assault. Students shout down speakers on campus whose opinion they have decided emphatically not to hear. People are fired for remarks that unintentionally violate intersectional norms. Cancellation culture is the most severe censor. Banishment itself seems to be one of the most lethal calling cards of social media. Thinking independently is somehow seen as audacious, akin to a criminal act. Exercising a constitutional right to speak freely, to some, should have the consequence of a war crime.
Our Founders believed that robust debate improved society, advanced science and culture, and enabled citizens to participate in representative democracy. Where is that happening today? Surely not on campus, in mainstream media, at family meals, or in political campaigns. Antagonism and annihilation instead define our civic dialogue. At the Women’s March on Washington in 2016, for example, Madonna proclaimed her disapproval of the recently inaugurated Donald Trump by stating that she “wanted to blow up the White House.”
Compare that sentiment to the march on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. True, a pop star can’t very well be compared to a civil rights legend. But she was chosen for the assignment. And she decided to speak in the language of the degenerate and divisive. The soaring, ennobling words of Dr. King do not supply the lyrics of this age.
It’s not too late to reverse course and reclaim the higher aspirations these liberties were meant to guarantee.
Inspired leadership would help. After he recovers from COVID-19, it would be wonderful if the president resumed his campaign by helping us recapture the respect we once had for freedom of thought, along with the civility that is required in the exercise of this right.
And it would great if he wore a mask, too.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.”