As we approach the 242nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the prevalence of headlines and tweetstorms about incivility seems like the farthest thing from the patriotism and camaraderie amongst the Continental Congress as they voted to absolve their allegiance to the British monarchy.
Stories such as Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-CA) calls for her supporters to confront President Trump’s Cabinet officials and the flood of death threats being received by Red Hen, the restaurant now infamous for its refusal to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have been observed by many as a seismic shift in how we conduct political debates and adjudicate our differences. Not only do these events mark a recent breakdown in understanding those with which we disagree, but this breakdown is also directly connected to our fixation with issues meant to distract citizens and lawmakers alike from subjects of greater importance.
While lawmakers were consumed with calling for apologies or criticizing small businesses, hardly a moment of public debate was spent on issues that our representatives actually have the power to act upon. Topics such as immigration, entitlement spending, and the Farm Bill received disappointingly less attention or were brushed aside entirely. In short, we have replaced substantive deliberation and action with scandal and outrage.
Since we are approaching the Fourth of July, a story about two men who were in Independence Hall that day might help to inspire us to rethink what we expect from our politics.
The Election of 1800 between incumbent President and Federalist John Adams and Republican Thomas Jefferson might have conjured up similar reflections on the breakdown of civility. Republican newspapers tarnished Adams with vivid insults that dubbed him a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Federalist newspapers would respond in kind, calling Jefferson “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw.” Suddenly, the tone of our current discourse does not seem so unfamiliar.
Like the Election of 1800, avoidance of the issues at hand in our contemporary discourse only increases the political purchase of insults and outrageous behavior. When our view of politics is stripped of substance, we are only left with party identification as a means of voicing our concerns. What should be a constant, satisfying effort at persuasion, argument, and working to solve problems is reduced to partisan finger-pointing and blame shifting.
Today, inaction and gamesmanship now act as incentives that encourage politicians to favor scandal over significance. What results is the regular use of crude and outrageous statements that are disconnected from serious public policy issues and are conveniently unable to be acted upon by legislators. However, if you care deeply about immigration, our out-of-control debt, the recent Supreme Court vacancy, health care, or any number of other issues, that’s going to have to wait until the next election.
All of this can seem daunting, but there is hope. Adams and Jefferson ultimately reconciled after their years of acrimony, with Adams concluding in his initial letter that “I am Sir with a long and Sincere Esteem your Friend.” The North and South Poles of the American Revolution, though they disagreed on much, were well-aware of the indispensable nature of action and empathy in politics. While conflict allowed them to identify their differences, empathy allowed them to understand and work through those differences.
So much did it seem that Adams and Jefferson had been able to empathize with each other and truly capture the spirit of politics that it seems like a work of fate that the two men died on the same day, July 4th, 1826. On this July 4th, we ought to revisit the relationship between Adams and Jefferson as an inspiration to demand action and empathy from our politics.