NEW YORK (AP)—Remember how shocking it was six months ago when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” to the president?
Suddenly, that outburst seems positively genteel.
From the “N-word” and anti-gay slurs being leveled at congressmen by protesters right outside the Capitol, to a shout of “baby killer!” within the chamber itself, to veiled and not-so-veiled threats online, the weekend saw an explosion of stunningly ugly discourse.
What is going on? Is our political culture sinking ever lower?
Actually, say political historians, not necessarily, though it surely may seem so. In reality, they say, such a descent into incivility happens periodically at times of significant political change.
The difference is that now we hear about every shocking outburst again and again, on 24-hour cable news, on YouTube, on Twitter—where there were a few random threats of violence over the weekend—and on blogs too numerous to count.
“This stuff is always out there,” says Steven Cohen, professor of public administration at Columbia University. “It’s just that now, we can’t get away from it. That’s what’s new. With the Web’s insatiable appetite for conflict, everything becomes magnified, even if it’s often an expression of a fringe minority.”
Everyone knows that the health care debate has stoked emotions on both sides like few issues in our political history. Still, even hardened observers were shocked by some of this weekend’s developments.
First there were the racist slurs shouted by protesters at Black congressmen outside the Capitol on Saturday, only feet from the actual debate inside.
Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., said that as he left the Cannon House Office Building with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., 70, a leader of the civil rights era, they were taunted with chants of “the N-word, the N-word, 15 times.”
A spokeswoman for Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said a protester spit on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who is also Black.
“I heard people saying things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus,” Clyburn told reporters.
“It was like going into a time machine,” Carson said of his experience.
That’s an important point, Cohen notes; the same kind of vitriolic language was used after civil rights measures were passed, and also when Franklin Roosevelt was trying to implement the New Deal. “It was at least as intense back then,” Cohen says.
Also targeted this weekend was Rep. Barney Frank, the openly gay congressman from Massachusetts. Protesters used common anti-gay slurs against him.
“Yes, they called me faggot, homo, several times,” Frank said in a telephone interview Monday. “It doesn’t hurt me, but it was sad to see this level of vituperation.” He also said he was stunned to see, inside the chamber on Sunday, Republican lawmakers cheer protesters who stood up in the House gallery and shouted, “Kill the bill.”
“I’ve never seen that before—Republicans on their feet applauding, cheering as the people were physically resisting the ushers,” Frank said. Disruptions from the gallery are banned. “To see the Republican leadership praising this group is very disturbing.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner, speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” called the racial and anti-gay remarks to Democratic members of Congress “reprehensible.” He added: “Let’s not let a few isolated incidents get in the way of the fact that millions of Americans are scared to death” of the health care bill.
Finally, many were taken aback to hear a congressman—Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas, it later turned out—shout “Baby killer!” during the House debate. This, in a forum where members refer to each other routinely with the terms “gentlemen” and “gentlelady.”
The shout came as Rep. Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat deemed crucial to the bill’s passage, was countering the arguments of Republican abortion foes, who said President Barack Obama’s executive order pledging no federal funding for abortions was insufficient.
On Monday, Neugebauer said his remark hadn’t been directed at Stupak himself—rather, he said, the “baby killer” was the agreement between Obama and anti-abortion Democrats led by Stupak.
True or not, one person who wasn’t shocked by the outburst—historically speaking, at least—was Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political communication who conducted a study of incivility in the House of Representatives from the 1940s through the mid-1990s.
She found that the worst incivility always occurs when there is a very close vote, on a very consequential matter. She also found it occurs when there’s a strong constituency that feels deeply about an issue and has support on the floor.
“Abortion, in the context of the health care debate, obviously fits all those criteria,” said Jamieson, a professor at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The point is, it’s not a case of incivility constantly getting worse,” said Jamieson. “We have moments where it happens. It’s not common, but it happens.”
When looking with her co-authors at the late 1940s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was being formed, “We had things that were much worse than last night.”
In fact, Jamieson notes, incivility is one reason that use of the terms “gentleman” and “gentlelady” were put in place: “So that if you have an impulse to say something uncivil, it will sound really inappropriate in that context.”
Though incivility in our political discourse may be partially a cyclical phenomenon, dependent on major political or social change, one analyst also sees a general coarsening of our political culture, as well as a much more ideological bent.
“I was on my way to work this morning and I saw an amazing bumper sticker,” said Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University. It directed a vulgar curse word at Obama.
“It’s hard for me to believe that we would have seen that a few decades ago,” said Schulman. “Even with Richard Nixon, who was so hated by many.”
Still, Schulman says, it’s clear that with the Internet, social media and other platforms, many with extreme views now merely have a megaphone they didn’t have years ago.
So, for example, a number of blogs Monday showed a poster held by opponents of the bill, in which a gun is pictured, with the words: “Warning, if Brown can’t stop it a Browning can.” The reference was to newly elected Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
“The rawest, most unfiltered comments now become part of the political discourse,” Schulman said.