Geof Stone on the Consequences of Political Vitriol

Political Vitriol and Its Consequences for Democracy

Barack Obama is a Socialist who consorts with domestic terrorists. He is a Muslim who was born in Kenya and is therefore not constitutionally eligible to be president. He wants to import homosexuals, destroy the Second Amendment, and encourage abortions. According to Sean Hannity, he has thrown Israel under a "bus full of suicide bombers." According to Glenn Beck, he has "a deep-seated hatred for white people." According to Rush Limbaugh, he has "nothing but contempt for this country."

And on and on and on.

The tenor and tone of the right-wing assault on the President of the United States should disturb all Americans. It is, to say the least, unseemly. Of course, we cherish the right to free speech. But having the right to do something does not mean one should actually do it. The Nazis had a First Amendment right to march in Skokie and the Klan has a First Amendment right to burn a cross, but that doesn't mean we should join or applaud them. With rights come, or should come, maturity and personal responsibility.

Although the ugliness of our current political discourse is distressing, it is not unprecedented. In 1798, a critic of President John Adams fumed that under Adams' leadership, "every consideration of the public welfare" was being "swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice." During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was variously attacked even in the North by those who opposed the war, the draft and the Emancipation Proclamation as a "despot," a "liar," a "monster," a "perjurer," an "ignoramus," and a "tyrant." And during the McCarthy era, the columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop observed that "something has gone wrong, very wrong, in the capital of the United States," noting that a "miasma" of political accusation "is seeping in over the nation's capital, like some noxious effluvium from the marshy Potomac."

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