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Letters from an Ohio Farmer

Words and Politics

August 9, 2011

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

Everyone across the political spectrum has been rightly celebrating the one grace note of the recent protracted battle in Washington over raising the debt ceiling—the moment when Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords appeared on the House floor, still recovering from her grievous wounds, to cast a vote on the climactic legislation.

Giffords’ welcome presence revived discussion of “civility” in our political life, a respectable term that had been deployed in the most uncivil way against raucous Tea Party activists in the moments after Giffords’ shooting in January.  Then in the heat of the debt ceiling battle, leading journalists and office holders who have been most sanctimonious about civility called the Tea Party “terrorists.” It should go without saying that civility is important to “civil society,” but it should be equally noted that a high rhetorical pitch is especially endemic to democratic forms of government that put a premium on serious public argument over essential questions of justice and policy.  There is an opportunity here for the Tea Party to turn this attack on its head, and to break new rhetorical ground in Washington.

The fervency of Tea Party rhetoric about potentially tyrannical government is nothing especially new or different in American politics; nor is there anything new in critics using extreme language to attack the Tea Party’s supposed extremism.  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who first fought each other with extreme bitterness and then conducted one of the most edifying correspondences between statesmen in human history, might well find the current discussion of civility in politics to be frivolous and unserious.  Jefferson’s supporters charged Adams with wanting to refasten British monarchy on America, while Adams’ supporters alleged that Jefferson’s election would mean the importation of the French guillotine and the blood of revolutionary terror running through every American town.

Our tender censors of political discourse would exhaust their vocabulary of outrage if faced with the harshness of public discourse at earlier periods of our history, not to mention the ways the hot tempers of political argument spilled over into actual violence.  The famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr was a rare but not unheard of thing in the early years of our republic; as nastily as our politicians can speak today, at least no one has been assaulted in a Capitol chamber like Senator Charles Sumner in 1856, when Rep. Preston Brooks beat Sumner savagely with a cane in the heat of the bitter debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Nor have we seen mobs descending on newspaper offices and shooting editors as occurred in Alton, Illinois in the famous case of Elijah Lovejoy in 1837—the event which inspired the teaching of Lincoln’s first great speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum the following year.

It may not simply be a lack of historical perspective, however, that has led to the current focus on civility in politics.  There is no doubt that changes in modern mass media have amplified our political discord.  In two generations we have gone from a media world of mostly print and radio to 24-hour television news and the always-on, unfiltered anarchy of the Internet.  Perhaps this may amount to a qualitative change in the effect of political rhetoric, just as the invention of movable type 500 years ago was a socially and politically disruptive mass media technology.  Like movable type and cheap books five centuries ago, our all-encompassing high tech mass media world is here to stay.  As the kids say, deal with it.

There is one aspect of political rhetoric, however, that office holders have within their power to change, and that change might help remove the sense many citizens have that our political class is remote from us.  When elected officials arrive in Washington, they very quickly pick up a way of talking that is not found in any other walk of life.  It comes in two forms.  First is the language of “comity,” the way in which our senators and representatives habitually refer to their bitter political opponents as “my good friend from the great state of Colorado,” and so forth.  In a few cases, this language expresses a true friendship across party lines, but it is usually a lie, and everyone watching on C-SPAN knows it is a lie.

This language probably is an import from the British parliamentary procedure of referring to the “right honorable gentleman from Blaby,” or some other specific constituency, in the House of Commons debates, but the formality of assuming honor in one’s opponents is a different thing than asserting friendship where none exists.  This language of comity probably serves a useful purpose in keeping political discourse more temperate, but why not drop the pretence and use more neutral language—”the representative from New Jersey,” “the senator from New Mexico,” even “the honorable representative from New Jersey”?

Second, elected officials in Washington always lapse quickly into a Capitol Hill jargon that subtly reinforces some bad tendencies of modern government in ways that are almost unnoticed, but which contribute to the peoples’ dislike of our political class.  Members of the House, in particular, speak of “my constituents” back home in the district.  But speaking of your fellow citizens as “constituents” abets the notion that your primary job is to pry as many goodies from Washington as you can for your “constituents.” If the Tea Party caucus really wants to mark themselves out as a different kind of political force, they should think about banishing the term “constituents,” and instead speak of citizens—a term which emphasizes our political equality.  (By the way, like the “right honorable gentleman” usage, this particular formulation is also an import from Britain, and it conveys the sense that our elected officials are our masters more than our representatives.)

In a similar vein, Tea Party caucus members should try not to use Capitol Hill jargon, which most members, especially new ones, adopt to convey the air of insider-sophistication.  Some of the special terms of art on Capitol Hill, like “budget reconciliation” and so forth, are unavoidable, but other phrases could benefit from Chruchill’s rule of linguistic simplification.  For example, don’t speak of using an “expedited process” to consider budget issues; instead, say “fast track.” Then the fact that nothing is ever fast in Congress will be revealed with some embarrassment for the process-oriented insiders.

If Tea Partiers actually speak differently as well as thinking differently, it will mark them out even more as a reforming force in Washington.  And if they do that, their critics will continue to call them names, mostly short, non-jargony names that are easy to make out.  That will be another sign of their impact.

Ohio Farmer