Mud-slinging. Does it matter?

If you are like me, you know that in ordinary, daily life, it is very difficult to offer constructive criticism in a civil and respectful manner.  And it is darn near impossible in two areas of American public life:  political elections and anonymous comment sections on the internet.

Granted, there are people, some of them are even creatures called politicians, who are able to disagree in a thoughtful, civil and constructive manner.  But it is very hard, partly because many voters do not pay attention to this kind of discourse.  The temptation to revel in the mudslinging thrown by “our people” is far too alluring to many of us.

On the other hand, political mud-slinging is not just distasteful to many Americans, it tempts many to avoid political engagement as much as possible.  That is another unfortunate consequence.

So, wouldn’t it be great if we could go back to that time when elections weren’t characterize by insults, intentionally misleading characterizations and outright lies about the opposing candidate?

And that time would be…..when?

How about the 1800 election?  In my last post I gave props to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for how they handled the election.  Good, healthy losing.  Good, healthy winning.

But there was more to that election.  As the first presidential election in which clear factions had formed in competition for the top position, some rather outrageous things were said by politicians and media leaders.  Ordinary people believed a lot of these outrageous things.

For your entertainment and increased understanding of the world, I have a video that catches some of the spirit of the rhetoric from the 1800 election:

Several notes:

1. For the historically gullible among you:  neither the internet nor television actually existed in 1800.

2. The quotes here are edited and taken out of context, but they do reflect the flavor of what was said and some actual phrases that were used.

3. The 1800 election, like all elections, also produced people who gave thoughtful, respectful and constructive criticism.

4. Jefferson and Adams did not actually say these things publicly because candidates did not actually campaign publicly then — they let their supporters campaign for them.  (Hey, wouldn’t that be great?) The mudslinging comments in 1800 were from their supporters. (OK, second thoughts:  maybe we don’t want to put all the political rhetoric in the hands of party supporters.)

My point is that name-calling, false accusations and outright lies have been present since the beginning.  This is not new.

So does mud-slinging matter?

Well, it is protected speech under the Constitution, and rightfully so.  This kind of rhetoric is, on some level, unavoidable, since “men are not angels” as Madison said, (or “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” as Paul said.)

However, that does not mean it is healthy for our society.  It would be better if candidates (and their supporters) could manage to be above all of that. But it is really hard to pull off effectively.  So we have to live with some level unhealthy rhetoric in our society.

Still, not all uncivil language is created equal.

For instance, consider the following campaign posters from Germany between 1929 and 1933.  At that time, Germany was a democracy (known as the Weimar Republic), but it was a fragile democracy.

These campaign posters reveal problems within the political culture of Germany at that time.  Take a good look at the images.



Communist Party, Liste 3:

“An End to this System”







Nazi Party:

“Smash the World Foe, International High Finance”







Social Democrat Party, Liste 1:

“Clear the Way for List 1”







The People’s Party, Liste 6:

“Against Civil War and Inflation!!”





What underlies these forms of political rhetoric?

They are signs that Germany at that time lacked a tradition of a loyal opposition.

To review:  healthy democracies assume that disagreement is legitimate, dissent is a healthy part of society, and political opponents should not be treated as if they are enemies to the nation.

Also this:  citizens recognize that their loyalty to the system of democracy is greater than their loyalty to a particular party or politician.

The lack of a loyal opposition in the Weimar Republic was significant because, as you may know, Hitler was able to take over the whole system in 1933.  That story is often told as if Hitler were some sort of “genius” who was able to dupe a bunch of gullible Germans.  But that analysis misses some critical points about the political culture of the Weimar Republic.

Hitler was a skilled orator and political manipulator, but he was no genius.  He was able to succeed because he took advantage of a number of serious political ailments in the Weimar Republic, ailments that many non-Nazi politicians and political parties also contributed to.

In other words, it would be helpful to consider what sort of ingredients went into the recipe of the Weimar Republic.  What made it possible for a large number of people to accept the Nazis and the communists as legitimate political options?  There were many, but let me list a few on the political discourse side of things.

The cover of Evans' book: Nazi Brown shirts attacking political opponents in the street.

The cover of Evans’ book: Nazi Brown shirts attacking political opponents in the street.

(Shameless plug for the importance of good historians:  If you want to read a fascinating, historically-solid account of how Germany ended up in the hands of the Nazis, I recommend that you read The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans.)

First of all, several political parties in the Weimar Republic intensified a sense that force and violence were valid measures to turn to, under the right circumstances.  Parties actually had their own private para-military units which would intimidate, beat up, shoot and sometimes kill political opponents and supporters.  For the Nazis, these were the Brown Shirts.  Other parties had their own uniformed gangs. Can you imagine Republicans and Democrats with their own uniformed military force, dressed in red and blue shirts, roaming the streets outside of polling places?

But here is my key point:  some forms of rhetoric, images and discussion encouraged many German citizens to accept violence in politics as legitimate.  Take another look at those campaign posters.  Several political parties, particularly the Nazis and the Communists on the extreme right and left, (who together captured 52% of the vote in 1932) did not treat other parties as if they were legitimate.  Even the less extreme parties, like the Social Democrats and People’s Party, were pulled into this kind of campaigning.  Politicians commonly accused opponents as “enemies of the Reich.”

And once you have labeled political opponents as enemies of the nation, it is easier to attach the “enemies” tag to all sort of people.  German Jews, of course, were the most notable victims of this process.

Of course, Hitler was not loyal to the system of democracy.  Neither were the communists.  Hitler exalted himself and his party above the system.  He equated his ideology with the nation of Germany.

There were many other factors that went into the rise of the Nazis.  But political rhetoric was a key part of the process.

Americans (and other stable democracies) can be thankful for a tradition of loyal opposition.  American politicians rarely refer to their opponents as “enemies” of the nation. They do not argue that violence is a legitimate tool to use against their opponents.  That’s the part we do well, without realizing it.

But we need to tend the garden.  What we say and how we say it matters.  There are ways that our rhetoric and discourse can start to slip in unhealthy directions.  Some politicians treat criticism as if it is not just incorrect but illegitimate.  Some people revert to rhetoric that characterizes political opponents as enemies of the nation.  And some people (fortunately they are usually non-politicians without much influence) will speak of violence as if it were an acceptable response to political opponents.

Our challenge?  Rhetoric is a very slippery and difficult substance to assess.  What kinds of rhetoric are constructive forms of dissent and what kinds of rhetoric pull us into unhealthy spaces?  The extremes are easier to identify than the fuzzy places in the middle.

So, let us think carefully, and humbly about what we are saying and how we are saying it.

The Critically Important Task of Losing Well

The Brits are a funny people.

Yes, they are humorous:  Monty Python is proof of that.  And I could tell you stories about a couple of my British friends who make me laugh.

But I’m thinking of a different kind of funny.  I mean funny as in a bit strange.  And I could tell you stories about a couple of my British friends who…well, no, let’s not go there.

Instead, let’s go here:  the British are funny because their government actually pays the leader of the party that loses the national election.  They give her or him a post in government with a salary equivalent to a cabinet member.  This person gets a car and a paid staff.  The loser.

It is both “funny ha-ha” and “funny strange.”

And yet… is crucially important for the successful operation of their democracy.

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Party leader and the current Important Loser -- OK, Her Majesty's Official Opposition --in Great Britain right now

The Right Honorable Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Party leader and the current Important Loser — OK, Her Majesty’s Official Opposition –in Great Britain right now

The official title for this person is “Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.”  That title encompasses an idea, “loyal opposition,” that is not used in the U.S. very much.  That is why it may seem funny to Americans.

But there is something very important here.  Back in 1992, when I found myself observing the political strife around me in Kenya, I heard the U.S. ambassador to Kenya give a speech in which he said that a problem Kenya was dealing with was that they did not have a tradition of a “loyal opposition.”

That phrase has stuck with me ever since.  What is it?

The concept of the “loyal opposition” actually encompasses many things.  Among them lies the thinking that disagreement is legitimate, that dissent is a healthy part of democracy, and that political opponents should not be treated as enemies to society.  In 1937, Great Britain went so far as to officially create this position, to protect dissent in their parliamentary system.

Putting up with dissent is not easy, though.  In fact, because of our sinfulness as humans, I would argue our default mode is to try to ignore, silence, or even eliminate those who disagree with us. People in power don’t want to have to listen to those who criticize them.

This is one thing that makes building a democracy so difficult.  When Kenya got its independence in 1963, it had to build a nation from more than thirty different ethnic groups.  Fearing division and fragmentation, the leaders created one political party, KANU, that was supposed to encompass all people.  They effectively outlawed all other parties.  The result was that Kenya did not develop healthy practices of dissent and disagreement in politics.  Political opponents, journalists and protesters were jailed if they got too critical.  Some were killed in mysterious circumstances.  Those in power solidified their grip on the system.  After thirty years, the nation had a grand total of two presidents and the first, Jomo Kenyatta, only vacated his post because he died.  During the 1992 elections, a time when I was wondering if my family would have to be evacuated, political strife ran deeply because opponents were pushing for an alternative party.  The ruling party, KANU, saw these dissenters not only as a threat to their power, but as enemies to the nation.

Unlike those funny Brits, the United States does not officially have a position of loyal opposition built into its system  It does, however, have many of the principles embedded in other ways.  Checks and balances ensure that one branch of government will be able to disagree and even block another branch.  The federalist system of dividing power between the national government and state governments is another way of doing that.  The Bill of Rights guarantees rights of assembly, speech, religion and press, thereby implicitly promoting dissent.

But it was not easy to establish practices of loyal opposition.

The clearest example of this were the Sedition Acts.  In 1798 — after the Constitution had been in effect for more than a decade — the Federalist faction in Congress passed laws that leveled fines and imprisonment for anyone writing anything “false, scandalous, and malicious against the government.”  President John Adams, a Federalist, signed it into law.

A newspaper editor, Thomas Callendar then wrote “the reign of Mr. Adams has, hitherto, been one continued tempest of malignant passions.  As president, he has never opened his lips or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding.  The grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties, to calumniate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.”  He was fined $200 and jailed for nine months.

Another newspaper editor, Luther Baldwin, wrote that he wished that a cannonball that had been fired in honor of Adams’ birthday had landed instead in the seat of his pants.  Baldwin was fined $100.

Some politicians thought Adams’ opponents really were enemies to the nation and threats to democracy.  And they tried to silence them.

When you think about it, these are the kinds of shenanigans that we think about happening in many African or Latin American nations.  Or Russia.  Or Egypt. Or Turkey. Or Myanmar (if you think about Myanmar, that is).

Fortunately, the United States worked through it, for the most part.

John Adams made a grave error by signing the Sedition Acts into law, but he later did something that was crucial for American democracy:  he lost.  More importantly, he lost well.  In the 1800 presidential election, he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson, who was supported by a different faction, the Democratic-Republicans.

And what did John Adams do?  He left Washington DC and went back home to Massachusetts.

To those of us steeped in stable democracies, this is such a typical, “normal” thing for a politician to do, it doesn’t even seem notable.  (Our lack of surprise is one of those Good Things that we don’t realize about ourselves.)

Consider this, though:  it was the first significant peaceful transfer of power in modern times.  Adams did not try to take over the military.  He did not claim voter fraud.  He did not arrest his opponents.  He did not try to change the Constitution in ways to keep him in power.  Those are all things that politicians facing electoral defeat have done in many places in the modern world.

John Adams: A Truly Great Loser

John Adams: A Truly Great Loser

Adams knew how to lose.  It was, in my estimation, his greatest moment.

Thomas Jefferson should get credit, as well.

In a rather famous inaugural address in 1801, he said, “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”  He meant that the loyalty to the democratic system should be greater, than loyalty to one’s party or political allies.  Meanwhile, dissent was critically important.  “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable,” Jefferson declared, “that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

The Sedition Act had punished Jefferson’s allies.  But in 1801 he did not try to arrest his opponents as payback.  Jefferson did not try to pass a new set of Sedition Acts (which had expired) to silence the opposition.  He did not turn to the military to solidify his power.

Jefferson knew how to win in a manner that was healthy for the nation.  Believe it or not, I seriously think that this was his finest moment — maybe more so than that Declaration thing.

We need to keep the loyal opposition idea in mind.  In a rather crazy election year when passions and anger seem to be running more deeply than in the past, in an election when many are behaving badly, let us remember that there are principles that are higher than our particular candidate, our particular party and our particular political issues.

Those funny Brits are on to something, after all.












Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Rioting

The disturbances in Baltimore a couple of months ago have me thinking about riots in the United States.

Do you remember that time when the Secretary of State was extremely worried about the rioting in Boston? The city, he said, was in a state of disorder, lives were in danger, local law enforcement had not effectively suppressed the riots, and troops would need to be brought in to establish order.

One to two thousand people had roamed the streets, attacking houses, beating up people and burning property.

The year was 1768 and the Secretary of State was Lord Hillsborough, speaking before Parliament in London. The disturbances in Boston had been provoked by government officials in Boston who had seized a ship, the Liberty, which belonged to John Hancock.

The Sons of Liberty do their thing.

The Sons of Liberty do their thing.

Yeah, it was one of those American Revolution things. The Sons of Liberty were out leading the way. Rebellion against the British, and that sort of stuff.

Riots of various sizes and dimensions were actually somewhat common in the American Revolutionary era. Between 1760 and 1775, there were forty-four riots in the American colonies.   Fortunately, the main grievances were gone after the British were defeated and the United States could rule itself. And so, in the 1780s…..riots still popped up. In the 1780s there were major riots in Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia and Charleston.

Rioters in New York City in 1849 do their thing.

Rioters in New York City in 1849 do their thing.

The young nation, however, made it through the turbulent period of its founding. And….there were more riots. Between 1830 and 1860 there were thirty-five major riots in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In fact, in every decade of American history, we can find at least one major riot — usually more. I discussed the Philadelphia Bible Riots in my last post. The New York City draft riots during the Civil War (which were not the only riot in during the Civil War) lasted for four days and killed 105 people. The Great Railway Strike of 1877 provoked riots in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and many other cities, leaving more than one hundred dead.  The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (one of twenty-five in the U.S. that year) left thirty-eight dead and thousands of black families homeless. The 1960s, of course, produced many different kinds of riots. And you may remember the Rodney King riots in the 1992. These listed are just the tip of the iceberg.

But why do Americans do this? The Canadians refrain from rioting, unless hockey is involved. Riots have been pretty common throughout U.S. history, though.

Railway rioters in Pittsburgh in 1877 do their thing.

Railway rioters in Pittsburgh in 1877 do their thing.

A common response is that riots are driven by irrational people who get angry and then can’t control themselves. Some blame riots on people who just want to take advantage of an unstable situation to rob and steal. I read comments recently about the riots in Baltimore that declared that those people don’t know how to protest.

Were the riots in Baltimore simply an example of people who just did not know how to use available democratic means (petition, protest, political action) to address problems?

There is more to it than that. History (are you surprised?) can help us see more clearly. In the vast majority of cases, we find people rioting because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that a legal, political, social and/or political system is failing to address an injustice. They believe that normal political processes (petition, protest, political action) have not worked. That is why the violence of riots very often target specific properties or symbols of authority. You can find this dynamic in each of the riots I have mentioned, including the recent riots in Baltimore.

Rioters in Tulsa in 1921 do their a black Baptist church.

Rioters in Tulsa in 1921 do their thing…to a black Baptist church.

After the recent shooting at the AME church in Charleston, I read some people say that they were thankful riots did not break out. But I don’t think rioting was really likely in this situation. Partly, this is because of the rather amazing statements of forgiveness by the AME church members. But even without that, I think it was unlikely because this was not a situation in which the justice and law enforcement system failed. Dylann Roof obviously drew upon racist and hateful motives that can still be found in our society, but the law enforcement and legal system acted as it should. It apprehended him and initiated prosecution. Everybody understands that.

Rioters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago do their thing.

Rioters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago do their thing.

Conversely, rioting usually occurs when the legal system does not do what it is supposed to, at least in the eyes of the rioters. In Baltimore and Ferguson, there was a backstory (there is always a backstory) dating back decades in which blacks were treated differently than whites by law enforcement. The political or community efforts to address the issue were not effectively heeded by those with authority. The same is true of most riots through American history. The issues change, but the dynamics of the system are quite similar.

But I have been wondering about something else. The Sons of Liberty in the American Revolutionary era raise questions in my mind. Could it be that rioting in American history has often been an unfortunate but logical working out of several beliefs that are found among American ideas of democracy?

(FILE FOOTAGE) April 29, 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, when a jury acquitted three white and one hispanic LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit. Thousands of people rioted in LA over the six days following the verdict.

Rioters in Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King decision do their thing.

There are several historical elements here. Thomas Hobbes wrote that the most important right of nature we have is to “defend ourselves” by all means. John Locke, arguably the Enlightenment political thinker who had the greatest influence on the creation of the United States, built upon Hobbes. Locke argued we have a moral responsibility to defend ourselves against those who seek to harm us. And, of course, in his social contract theory, Locke extended this to say that if the government authority acts against the interest of the people, they have the right and the moral obligation to resist this authority. These men, of course, were read by the Founders. Ben Franklin wanted our national motto to be “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” has been used by those who see resistance to authority as a sacred duty.

Rioters in Baltimore in 2015...ah, you get the idea.

Rioters in Baltimore in 2015…ah, you get the idea.

Unfortunately, there is a fine line between peaceful resistance and violent resistance. And it is very difficult to determine, under this thinking about “rights,” just when violent resistance is justified. George Washington thought that taking up arms against the British was justified, but that the 1786 Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts (in which excessive taxes were the sticking point) was not justified. Lord Hillsborough thought the Sons of Liberty were out of line. The Sons of Liberty thought they were working for, well, liberty. Similar divided thinking about justice can be found in just about every riot since then.

Fortunately, the vast majority of our conflicts in American society are handled through peaceful means. But there is still this underlying current of violence in the name of justice and rights that comes to surface occasionally, when a legal and/or political system is perceived as failing to address injustices. And, of course, we have not effectively solved all issues of justice in our society, so I expect riots to occur again numerous times in my lifetime. Rioting, unfortunately, may be as American as apple pie.