Will COVID-19 Restock the Shelves with Civility, Tolerance?

BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON  |  APR 29, 2020

“I get it. You’re mad. The President is mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad, and Luna is a golden-doodle and they don’t get mad.” — Professor Jonathan Turley, testifying on impeachment before the House Judiciary Committee December 2, 2019.

The intensity of hate and anger that Dr. Turley experienced on Capitol Hill when he testified late last year in the impeachment proceeding against President Donald Trump has been subdued by the COVID-19 pandemic…for now.

Little did we know just four months ago that while national attention was in the clutches of the political theater being staged in the Capitol, the deadly virus was already creeping into the lives of people on the west coast.

What better time for an old cliché:

If we had only known then what we know now…. think how different things might be.

But that’s water under the bridge, over the dam, down the drain.

The pervasive nastiness Dr. Turley sensed in that hearing room last December will be back. As Politico’s John Harris opined recently: “People who feel that the pandemic is going to ‘break the fever’ of the past couple of decades—that it will finally rid public life of its malice, its addiction to remorseless conflict and conspiracy theory…I’d like to buy it but can’t yet.”

The country will face some daunting challenges in the months and probably years ahead. Among them is the overpowering temptation to return to the uncivil and destructive nature of our political discourse that has been deeply ingrained in our politics for much too long.
More than a decade ago, President Barack Obama was addressing Congress on the Affordable Care Act when Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled from his seat on the House Floor, “You lie!” You could hear the gasps coming from the chamber and imagine them coming from the millions watching on television.

Wilson’s act, for which he later apologized, was startling but in hindsight not surprising. The outburst reflected an environment decades in the making, even back then. It was also an omen of the stridency, intolerance, and tribalism that would cripple politics and seep into other segments of society.

Some thought Mr. Wilson would be sternly disciplined for violating the House’s hallowed rules of decorum. He wasn’t. Some thought he would be subject to public scorn. He wasn’t. Instead contributions to his campaign soared and he became a hero of the budding tea party movement that in a few short years would transform the Republican Party and leave traditional conservatism a murky bog of conflicting political thought.

Today, calling somebody a liar in politics is milquetoast. Lying, and its first cousins, exaggeration and misrepresentation, are all too common.

The politics of hate and anger has infected the way we communicate, the way we think, and most of all the way we relate to each other. It is a virus that spreads across the spectrum of political ideologies and beyond to race, age, gender, geography, income, education, and social status. The language of this dark paradigm is demoralizing and corrosive. It violates basic tenets of traditional religious and spiritual beliefs, social mores and codes of civil behavior that have kept the American culture from collapsing since the first settlers stepped ashore. No more.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote in June of last year:

”We are a country where people are angry at each other, yes, but also feel their core beliefs are under attack. The more each side tries to defend itself, the more the other feels that its identity is demeaned and defamed. That’s the death trip that America seems to be on.”

It is convenient to blame the death trip Ignatius describes on politicians such as President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both egged on by the media.

It’s easy because they are all complicit. Trump has sullied the Presidency with his brash, rude, and demeaning personal insults. His brain doesn’t seem to function until after his mouth does. He abuses people unmercifully and shows no regard for truth, preserving the public trust, or unifying the country. His crude and uninformed view of the powers of his office and his obsessive exaggerations and lying have seemingly run out the clock on public tolerance. My grandmother would have whooped him with a yardstick daily and washed his mouth out with soap.

Unfortunately, our President has no adult supervision.

But instead of going higher when he goes lower, as First Lady Michelle Obama advised, Speaker Pelosi has attempted to match his contempt, with name calling insult-for-insult and silly stunt for silly stunt. Tearing up the President’s speech for the cameras at the Speaker’s podium was a low point in her Speakership. That prank was not of great consequence, but her three-year obsession with getting Trump out of office before the end of his term has been. It has wiped out any chance for constructive policy-making, and further inflamed the troublemakers in both camps. It has cost the American people tens of millions of dollars.

Like the Presidency, hers is an office that demands better.

It is no wonder that the bottom is falling out of the public’s trust in Congress and the Presidency. The lack of trust has made governing even more difficult, more abrasive, and completely ineffective. Both the President and his nemeses know very well that if you destroy public trust in a representative form of government you invite its overthrow. Right, AOC?

Politics and media are not the only institutions failing American society. Young people are losing faith in faith. They are not going to church. Our educational institutions are failing to instill in our young people an appreciation for and a basic grasp of the critical lessons of history and a deep grounding in civics. Governmental institutions at all levels are facing challenges they aren’t equipped to meet. Prior to the pandemic, charitable giving was down when the need for it is up. It all contributes to anxiety, frustration, and disillusionment.

It is no wonder people are having a hard time talking with each other. It is hard enough when you know and trust one another. It’s all but impossible when one person doesn’t or won’t trust the motivation of the other. If you question one’s motivation, my late friend Bill Gavin always reminded me, you are not inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt or keep your mind open to their point of view, a vital ingredient to successful dialogue. Discussions become arguments and arguments become dead ends. Smart man, that Gavin. I miss him.

One element, however, is utterly bewildering. There is an enormous contradiction and great irony in all of this.

Think about what is wrong with this picture. What if it isn’t a picture of reality? What if it is just perceptions, created for us by those who exploit human emotion, those who profit from divisiveness and a society populated by victims and villains who are identified and branded arbitrarily and unfairly to accommodate political narratives and good storytelling?

I firmly believe that most Americans are not extremist, or radical, rebellious ideologues. Most Americans are not permanently bound to a political party. Most Americans are reasonable. They continue to cling to virtues and values that have kept societal behavior well elevated from base animal instincts.

Most Americans work hard, create families, don’t ask for much, and keep an open mind about change. Most Americans believe in the redeeming quality of the American character, the embodiment of those values such as civility, mutual respect, generosity, sincerity, humility, trust, tolerance, and truthfulness, among others. But most Americans are not who we see and hear about. They are certainly not anywhere near as deplorable or coldly elitist as those who brand them that way.

Noted author Arthur Brooks offered this perspective in an op-ed article in July 2019:

“‘You know what they really want’”, it began. “As America slouches toward the 2020 presidential election, candidates and pundits will regularly tell you this about the other political side followed by a list of its extremist beliefs, twisted motives, and wicked desires. But did you ever stop and ask how much you really know about the other side? Or whether the outrage industry in politics and media is telling you the truth about your fellow Americans who disagree with you politically? “

Good question.

Brooks suggests that most of what we know about the other side is wrong, based in part on a new study published in the Journal of Politics and a report done by the nonprofit, More in Common. Researchers found that average Democrats think Republicans make $250,000 a year and average Republicans think that 40 percent of Democrats are LGBTQ. Only two percent of GOPers do that well and six percent of Democrats are LGBTQ.

While “left and right differ on immigration, those holding extreme views are a minority in both parties,” Brooks wrote. Most Republicans believe that properly controlled immigration is a good thing and most Democrats strongly disagree with open borders. However, the perception gap on both sides was 33 percentage points.

Brooks added:

“Today more than 90 percent of both Republicans and Democrats describe people in their own party as ‘honest’ ‘reasonable’ and ‘caring.’ Meanwhile more than 80 percent in each party describe the other side as ‘brainwashed’ and ‘hateful.’”

Yet the loudest megaphones, the brashest language, and the sharpest tongues dominate public discourse, get the most attention and, therefore, shape our perceptions. We seldom question it. We rarely challenge it. We just accept it, without thinking that most Americans are not filled with hate or bigotry or extreme and intractable points of view, traits that dominate the headlines and the evening news.

A September 2019 PEW survey found that 81 percent of Americans overall are concerned about the partisan division and 78 percent believe it is increasing. Weber Shandwick research found in 2018 that 93 percent of Americans agree the US has a civility problem and 69 percent say it is a major problem.

We have political leaders on the left and right today, who recognized in their respective bases, a desire for confrontation and a sense that the political system had been ignoring them. They capitalized on that anxiety and created political movements that today largely control events.

Brooks pointed out that “This will be the conventional wisdom until a breakout leader reveals our hunger for unity and stands up to the outrage industry and putrid political status quo.”
What has been reflected in America’s battle against the virus is really who we are and who we want to be. It is that kind of individual citizenship that we want the media to reflect and politicians to listen to.

Author Michael Crichton observed in a speech in San Francisco:

“The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on special urgency and importance. In short, our struggle to determine what is true is the struggle to decide which of our perceptions are genuine, and which are false because they are handed down, or sold to us, or generated by our own hopes and fears.”

He made those timely observations 17 years ago. Maybe it is time to heed those words and act accordingly.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.

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