Lincoln, Civility, and Reality TV
This goes against our modern sense of how politics is supposed to function. In 2009, when a South Carolina Congressman shouted, “You lie!” as President Obama spoke, people were horrified. What has happened, we bemoaned, to civility in American politics? It’s bad enough that commentators are screaming at each other on Fox News, but now, in the House of Representatives?
But then, this past weekend, I went to see Lincoln. And to me, the most fascinating part was watching the Congressmen debating each other in the circa-1864 House of Representatives. These weren’t just any debates. Out of the mouths of these distinguished gentlemen came personal attacks and painfully clever barbs, which were followed by partisan roars of approval. Along with the cigars and spittoons, I almost expected to see these guys with frothy mugs of lager. They may as well have been at the pub.
So, would we be better off with this kind of Congressional discourse? Or with similar kinds of presidential debates?
Well, on the one hand, probably not—at least to this extreme. This country is suffering from some serious partisan divisions. While it might be amusing to watch Barney Frank and Michele Bachmann trading boisterous witticisms about the fiscal cliff, this might not be the most effective way to unite us.
On the other hand, the advantage of this kind of angry and open debate is that we actually get to hear what politicians really think—and to see some actual passion behind the rhetoric. Maybe if politicians brought issues to life with their passion, citizens would be more engaged.
If anything, C-SPAN ratings would go up. People would get bored with the predictable drama on reality TV and tune into the chaotic Congressional shouting matches. (As I watched the Congressional sparring in Lincoln, I imagined the C-SPAN logo on the bottom of the screen.) Heck, C-SPAN could spice things up further by adding reality TV conventions to the Congressional sparring, like interspersing the Congressional action scenes with “in the moment” interviews with the contestants… er, representatives. Michele Bachman would confide to the camera, “Barney Frank wants everyone to think he’s so concerned about the fiscal cliff. But I don’t think he’s here for the right reasons.”
We could take the reality TV motif further and have representatives vote each other out of Congress, with tribal councils held along the Potomac. Or we could play, “Who Wants to be the Vice Presidential Nominee?” Howie Mandel could be the host. Or Guy Fieri. Or Monica Lewinsky. Or maybe teams of presidential and vice-presidential candidates could travel around the country in a version of The Amazing Race.
But I digress.
Some may argue that if Congress got more boisterous, the rest of our political discourse would become even less civil. While this may be the case, I wonder if the opposite might be true. After all, in a nation where our representatives feel the need to tiptoe around their true feelings, we have an overabundance of incivility elsewhere. Fox News is just one example. To find incivility, all you need to do is pop by an Internet comments section in response to just about any controversial issue. The ensuing “screaming” match would make the 1864 Congressmen blush.
If our politicians would actually tell it like it is a little more, would we feel less inclined to berate strangers on Facebook because they disagree with us about taxes? I don’t know. Maybe we need to get it out of our system somewhere, and since they didn’t have Internet flaming in 1864, they did it in Congress.
Of course, more honesty by politicians wouldn’t be appreciated by everyone. A relative of my husband’s reported that she turned off this year’s vice-presidential debate because “there was too much interrupting.” In fact, here in Minnesota, where expressing one’s opinion about just about anything means you may be in violation of “Minnesota Nice,” forthright representatives would not go over with many.
On the other hand, there are many of us out there who appreciate the Joe Bidens of the world who say things like “malarkey” and show some real passion for the issues affecting our country. (Also, since I grew up in New Jersey and I’m Jewish, I pretty much don’t even when someone interrupts.)
So, no, of course we don’t want to get back to an age where Congress is a battleground the way it was in 1864. But maybe the public would be more engaged if our leaders moved just a little more in the direction of the rhetoric of 1864.
And maybe C-SPAN needs some new programming.