The End of Civility?

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In the 1940’s and 50’s when Sam Rayburn ruled the House his famous motto was: “You’ve got to go along to get along.” Rayburn governed during such a volatile period of war (World War 2, Korean, the beginning of Vietnam) and economic upheaval that the House flipped six times in 21 years. He got along so well with his GOP counterpart, Joe Martin, with whom he traded the title of speaker four times – that in 1954 after winning back the majority he graciously told Martin keep the prized offices on the second floor of the Capitol with a balcony overlooking the National Mall that traditionally went to the Speaker. The two had moved offices so many times and Rayburn assumed Martin and the Republicans would win back the majority in ’56 with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s reelection. Though Ike did win a second term, Rayburn surprised himself and held on to his final speakership until 1961. Meanwhile, the swanky offices became the domain of the minority leader for 40 years until Newt Gingrich took them back in 1995.

It’s hard to imagine either side being so gracious these days. Rancor has compounded every election since the 1994 Republican revolution. And this cycle stands out as the rudest, most uncivil ever. Starting with Joe Wilson heckling “You lie!” at President Obama and ending with racial, sexual and sexist slurs, the mud has felt more like quicksand at times, with all the political universe drowning in it. Anger has marked this election and there will be no going along or getting along, for all that John Boehner has promised to restore a civil tone to the House.

Boehner’s going to have a tough time convincing his freshman class of Michele Bachmann wannabes to play nicely with the other side. And there is that irony that polls show voters want politicians to get along – they want bipartisanship – but in order to effect change they keep electing the most bombastic of bomb throwers.

Plus, in an age of opposition research twitter dumps and incriminating Halloween and facebook photos, is civility possible? Internet anonymity brings out the worst in people – just witness the blog comments section here or in any other news organization. Somehow, it’s fine to say the cruelest things online, utterances that face-to-face would be unimaginable. People thought local TV brought news it’s lowest common denominator. Turns out that was a high bar compared to the Internet. Cyber bullies are just beginning to be prosecuted, but no one blinks twice at folks posting the most unbelievably rude things about politicians. They’re adults, they’ve “thrust themselves into the vortex of the public eye,” so they should just suck it up. But should they? Should we?

Congress is broken. And no matter how big a wave these elections are, they’re more likely to exacerbate the problem, not fix it.