In the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy considerable debate has been devoted to a discussion of the vitriolic and venomous nature of our political rhetoric. Two observations about that particular focus are instructive. First, at least two other factors were serious contributors to the scope and nature of the Tucson tragedy. The gun control laws in Arizona and this country have been cited appropriately as a factor in how the tragedy played out. Likewise, the mental health system has been strenuously identified as a core failure in the descent of Jared Loughner into homicidal hell. Rhetoric alone was not the cause.
A second observation concerning this focus on the tone of American politics today is that, as Sarah Palin pointed out, the rhetoric in the past has been far more severe. The Adams-Jefferson election of 1800, for example, produced violent rhetoric unmatched in American history by any until the Civil War. However, the greater distinction between today’s political vitriol and that of 1800 lies not in the more violent rhetoric then, but rather in the near absence of an honest debate now. Notwithstanding the venom of 1800, Federalists and Anti-Federalists simultaneously conducted a highly intellectual, highly articulate, and highly honest debate about the role of government. We are, after all, talking about Adams and Jefferson! Such integrity of debate barely exists today. Yes, we should of course endeavor to discuss our differences with more respect and civility. Even more critical, however, is that we discuss our differences in a framework of honest and careful thinking about the meaning of our remarks and the consequences of our positions. The caliber of political discourse in the early days of the American Republic, and even in the run-up to the national tragedy of civil war, was of a level not often seen in world history. That bar may be too high to cross today; nonetheless, we can do better than this.