Longing for a genteel debate

Published 8:11 pm Monday, March 19, 2012

One of the surprising things about being a newspaper editor is the amount of email I get from one day to the next. And nobody sends more unsolicited and vacuous messages than the Republican and Democratic parties in the run-up to an election.

If you’re wondering how important Virginia’s coming elections are to the state’s two main political parties, you should take a look at my email trash folder. It’s full of messages from one party leader or the other — and more often from their various paid and volunteer flacks — purporting to have caught one of the candidates in some supposedly egregious flub or another and calling on the offending candidate to do some unlikely public penance for supposedly wanting women to be chained to their washing machines or babies to be murdered or members of the nation’s military to give up their pensions and live in the streets.

The days of reasonable political discourse in Virginia — if they ever really existed — seem to be gone.


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A recent email from the Democratic Party serves as a great example.

Following Gov. Bob McDonnell’s signature of the new law requiring ultrasounds before abortions, the Democrats sent a message demanding (their word, not mine) that the governor personally pay for the ultrasounds of the women who will now be required to get them before procuring abortions. The tone was shrill and petulant, two words that perfectly describe the level of rhetoric surrounding politics today.

And the fact that their demand had no chance of being met didn’t matter in the least — the point was to issue the statement in hopes that some newspaper or television station would pick it up and that the True Believers among the Democratic base would get even more fired up in their quest to elect Democrats to the statehouse and the U.S. Senate.

Democrats hardly have the market cornered on such empty rhetoric. It’s what drove conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh to call a college student a “slut” after she lobbied for a mandate that insurance companies cover contraceptives.

That’s a term I never would have imagined using in this newspaper, and one that I especially couldn’t have fathomed as part of our national discourse. Yet that is the level to which we have sunk. Limbaugh uses shameful language to denigrate a young woman with whom he disagrees, and Democratic supporter Bill Maher uses even more disgraceful language to refer to Republican Sarah Palin. And both sides describe themselves as shocked — shocked — at the coarseness and misogyny of the other’s pronouncements.

The selective moral outrage is palpable.

It used to be that even when politics at the national level turned ugly, Virginia politicians could be counted on for a little decorum, a debate of ideas rather than empty rhetoric and gotcha lines.

Maybe the change is to be expected, considering that even politics reflects the culture in which it exists. And that culture in America — even here in the state that was home to true gentlemen like George Washington and Robert E. Lee — is one that sometimes seems so fallen that it would no longer even recognize polite public debate.

Sometimes it seems as if there are no true gentlemen left on the public stage, not even here in our great commonwealth. For a native Virginian like myself, raised to display a certain gentility even — perhaps especially — in regard to those with whom I disagree, the change is disheartening and even depressing.

To be sure, there is much at stake in the coming elections, no matter which side of the aisle you’re on. But name-calling, hollow demands and empty words will never win converts to one’s cause. Such debased discourse will only make enemies and drive polite, reasonable people out of the public square.

Whether culture can aspire to the respectability we’ve lost or not, our leaders in government and entertainment should do so. And whether the nation can ever have a genteel debate about politics again, it should be part of our nature as Virginians.