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Larry Donnelly: 'US politics may have lost civility, but online discourse here is no better'

Larry Donnelly charts the decline in civility in US politics and says Irish conversations online hint of a growing intolerance here.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“EXTREMISM IN DEFENCE of liberty is no vice.” Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater made this pronouncement as he accepted the nomination to take on the incumbent President of the United States, Democrat Lyndon B Johnson, in 1964. 

It was a rebuke to his party’s establishment, who feared that his brand of politics was too far right for the American people.  Nowadays, though, Goldwater would probably be identified as a middle of the road elected official in the GOP.

This is only one of many cautionary tales that can be drawn upon to illustrate the well-chronicled polarisation of politics on the other side of the Atlantic. It didn’t used to be this way.

baker-and-reagan-celebrate-victory United States President Ronald Reagan calls the Speaker of the House Thomas P. Tip O'Neill over the phone in the Oval Office in 1981. Source: DPA/PA Images

In decades past, it was customary for conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans – both of whom are nearly extinct species in 2020; in the interest of due disclosure, I am one of the former – to get together and do business while their more ideological congressional colleagues howled at the moon.

Even determined foes like President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill could occasionally cooperate.

That is all a distant memory. Republicans and Democrats increasingly see each other as the enemy. And those within their own ranks with the temerity to refuse to toe the party line invariably or to consort with the opposition are regarded with deep suspicion. A number of them have successfully been “primaried” in recent years by more unwaveringly, and often unthinkingly, loyal disciples.

What pushed the extremes?

There are lots of reasons for this drift to the poles. The almighty dollar is the biggest of all. Powerful special interests don’t do nuance. And a dreadful litany of US Supreme Court jurisprudence, commencing with a 1976 decision that money is the equivalent of speech in the context of campaign contributions and hence entitled to 1st Amendment protection, has had related, catastrophic consequences for American democracy.

The gerrymandering of congressional districts to ensure more safe Republican and safe Democratic seats has heightened partisanship. It is less an imperative for most in the US House to appeal to the broadest possible swathe of the electorate than to serve up red meat to their usually like-minded constituents.

environment-lifestyle-firearms-parental-maternal-protest-march-marchers-moms-mothers A mass rally on gun control in Washington in 2000. High-level lobbying of public servants has tipped the balance in favour of big business. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

A poisonous media environment in which Americans tune into the cable news network that tells them what they want to hear – truth be damned – furthers the division. Fox News is regularly and rightly caricatured. But there is plenty of fault to be found at MSNBC.

What may be more troubling than all of this, however, is a concomitant purge of civility from public discourse. There is blame to go around. Conservative Republicans have outrageously charged that President Bill Clinton “gave aid and comfort to the enemy during the Vietnam War” and disgracefully shouted “you lie!” in the middle of an address to Congress given by President Barack Obama.

ny-roger-ailes-dies-at-77 The late Roger Ailes was chairman and CEO of Fox News. He resigned in 2016 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

On the other hand, it was grossly unfair for Edward Kennedy to bellow on the floor of the US Senate in 1987 that a theretofore widely-respected jurist, Robert Bork, wanted a country in which, among other dire things, “blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.” Senator Kennedy as much as admitted his transgression when he said it was “nothing personal” at a subsequent meeting with Bork.

Toxic discourse in Ireland

Readers in Ireland will dismiss some of the musings above as just more ’Murica – and they undeniably have cause for doing so in the midst of Donald Trump’s presidency.  The centre, generally speaking, has held in Irish politics, despite the myriad challenges this still young century has offered. On the whole, we should be thankful for that.

Conversely, discourse about politics and current affairs here, in particular on social media, is commonly immoderate and anything but civil. To articulate a position, no matter how seemingly benign or justifiable, is to invite a chorus of criticism from often unforeseeable quarters.

A number of prominent figures have been venting as of late about a climate of hostility that can be difficult to escape on social platforms here. And remarkably, it hasn’t abated in this pandemic.

There appears to be a widespread need to paint people into corners. “You’re this” or “you’re that.” Everything is black and white; there can be no grey. Labels are neat and handy, even if they don’t fit precisely, or at all.

No more or less than anyone else, I have experience of this unfortunate phenomenon of corner painting. When I write or talk about President Trump, I can expect a roughly equivalent amount of comments to the effect that I am either a sworn hater or a secret admirer of his. I wish my skin was thicker, and can’t claim to be totally unaffected by the attacks, but I do hope the disparity in reactions is evidence of analytical objectivity.

Corner painting on social media is most acute when it comes to cultural issues. The discourse is typically beyond uncivil; it’s appalling. For example, the casual labelling of abortion opponents as “misogynists” and pro-choice advocates as “baby killers” is revolting, unedifying and just plain wrong.

Of course, there are extremists on hotly contested topics whose ideas are indefensible and do not warrant an airing. They are a small minority.  And a bit of discernment can swiftly separate the wheat from the chaff.

I wish that we collectively weren’t as quick to judge those with whom we disagree and to lower the tone as a result. When we do, it does ourselves and our convictions no justice.  It is only by listening to what others have to say that we can fully recognise the strengths and weaknesses of our own beliefs. This is, or should be, at the heart of civil discourse.

My personal view is that it leads to the murky middle in the overwhelming majority of instances, that no one has all the answers. But being an unrepentant moderate, I would say that, I guess. 

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Political moderation is advantageous to the extent that it rejects almost nothing reflexively, yet it can leave one in the line of fire from every conceivable direction.  Trust me on that. At any rate, the lack of civil discourse has permanently damaged the American polity. A cursory perusal of Irish social media conversations reveals that its decline is being felt elsewhere, too.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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