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Are we witnessing the end of Shame in American Political Discourse?



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My Oxford dictionary lists a number of definitions for shame, including, “Regard for propriety or decency, a restraint on behavior.” Webster’s dictionary defines shame as an “action or situation that brings a loss of respect or esteem or honor.” I share these definitions as I have lately been reflecting on the erosion of any sense of propriety among many of our public leaders and would-be thought leaders in our nation’s current political dialogue. While both partisans of progressive and conservative positions have arguably advanced rhetoric with little or no relationship to reality in recent times and done so without any evident sense of shame, it is the conservatives who appear to have produced an industry of such rhetoric and publications to press it. Indeed, a stable of specific right-leaning authors has been producing partisan screeds of this sort with some regularity in recent years and steadily selling hundreds of thousands of copies of them to the faithful. Progressives meanwhile, seem neither to take far-left authors so seriously, nor to allow their ideas such sway.

Michael Tomasky has recently argued in the New York Review of Books that outlandish purplish rhetoric has now displaced and drives ideas within this group of authors, rather than the reverse, which would traditionally obtain. Here are several recent examples:

  • It has lately become a GOP talking point to argue that raising the issue of the rising inequality in income in the United States and asking that it be considered in light of the nation’s fiscal situation and relative wealth and taxation levels constitutes “class war.” Since those same partisans argue for a supposed opportunity society in which classes cannot be said to exist, it is difficult to understand what such assertions actually mean. More importantly, it is unclear why all discussion of income inequality and fairness should not be a part of political debate in a nation dedicated to democratic equality as one of its central aspirations.
  • GOP leaders, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have also labeled the current peaceful protests on Wall Street in New York, which raise these concerns, the product of “mobs,” a point wholly unrelated to the factual events unfolding in that city. The rhetoric may appeal to the partisan or fearful or perhaps both, but it bears no relationship to reality.

Conservative broadcast personality and writer Ann Coulter has authored a spate of texts in recent years aimed at the conservative base that employ over-the-top rhetoric to tar the opposition as not only wrong on policy, but innately untrustworthy and out of control. Her current illustrative text is entitled Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America and here is a claim typical of the enflamed rhetoric within it:

  • The Democratic Party is the party of the mob, irrespective of what the mob represents. Democrats activate mobs, depend on mobs, publicize and celebrate mobsthey are the mob. Indeed, the very idea of a “community organizer” is to stir up a mob for some political purpose.
  • Any nonpartisan observer would wonder at the claim that the Democratic Party exists to encourage mobs or that community organizing amounts to mob tyranny by definition. Her second claim would come as news to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi who led social movements for democratic rights at the grassroots. Neither advocated mobocracy or tyranny, nor does democratic organization necessarily connote mob rule. Coulter’s claims bear no relationship to reality.

These examples might be multiplied and an analysis of how these sorts of arguments have become a daily mantra to be repeated among Party leaders might be undertaken. But that seems unnecessary to make four basic points. First, many political and thought leaders in our society appear to have lost any sense of shame as they advance their rhetorical claims to the broader electorate. The Coulter and Cantor exemplar rhetoric is not just exaggeration or “vote for the good guys” sorts of assertions, but outlandish claims untethered to reality. These statements appear to have no purpose but to emphasize the “otherness” and repugnant character of any who would adopt a different point-of-view. Second, rhetoric without any link to reality and prosecuted without shame is potentially dangerous as it can convince many that those who disagree are not worthy of respect, and thereby undermine the central condition necessary for democratic exchange and possibility in a heterogeneous society. Third, these screeds and this sort of outrageousness illustrate just how far from a modicum of civility our civic discourse has strayed. Last, this sort of rhetoric can now be pressed instantaneously and across multiple media platforms, resulting in a reach beyond anything that has existed previously in American history.

To the extent a complete erosion of shame as a motivator among our officials and thought leaders is underway or has occurred, we have entered a new and potentially dangerous phase in our politics. Those offering these claims have apparently lost capacity to discipline themselves and their sales (of books and media as well as perceived successes in politics) will do little to dissuade them to discipline or change their behavior. Indeed, what might provide incentive to change this deeply distressing trend is not now obvious. What is clear is how this rhetorical politics without shame is degrading our political discourse and corroding democratic possibility.

Publication Date

October 9, 2011