A few years back I worked for a large engineering and environmental consulting firm at their office in Santa Barbara. In this office was one of the company's main attorneys, a man who I eventually learned had been active in the Republican Party from the 1970s through the 1990s, and who had very strong opinions about political figures. While he was often (in fact typically) very critical of the Democrats in Congress, when asked he could always explain his objections, and when those objections came down to simple differences in basic political philosophy, he was open about this and didn't try to dress it up as "I'm right, they're wrong" but rather would put forward that he operated from a set of assumptions about humanity in general and politics in particular that was different from those with whom he disagreed.
In other words, he often objected to policies, but he always retained a reasonable attitude and could discuss his views in a calm and fair manner.
After decades of talk radio and the recent advent of political blogs, I was surprised to see someone capable of this. After all, one need only turn on the radio or television to hear Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh accusing all "liberals" of being baby-eating satanist traitors, and a trip to the local cineplex will yield loads of joyful misdirection and emotional manipulation with Michael Moore* or Ben Stein.
And yet here was someone who politically was on the "other side" from me, and we were quite capable of not only finding the occasional common ground, but, much more importantly, of being able to actuallu understand what the other was talking about and, if not agreeing, at least seeing merit where it existed.
After a few months of working there, I asked him why he had left Washington D.C. and politics. His response rather surprised me.
"Well, I grew to hate what politics had become. You see, it used to be the case that people would disagree on policy, and they'd have heated debates in the Congress, and as soon as it was over, they could go to a bar together and talk about each other's hobbies and families."
I had always heard that politics had always been as overheated as it was now, and had said as much to him.
"No. The arguments in public were often vicious, and people would claim, and sometimes the people claiming this really believed it, that the policy of their opponents would have disasterous consequences - think of the Goldwater-era 'girl picking flowers' advertisement. But they never thought that their opponents were evil, they may have thought they were wrong or even misguided, but not evil. That's changed. Limbaugh changed it, Gingrich changed it, a whole lot of voters and radio listeners changed it. Now, it's not enough for the opposition to be wrong, they also have to be evil. You can't just be opposed to their policy, they have to be traitors. It's wrong, it's destructive, and it's dangerous."
Since then, I have looked into matters more, and while I am no expert, I think he's probably right. The problem isn't that public discourse has become "uncivil", as so many people complain, it's that it's become bat-shit insane.
To that end, I was happy to read this and discover that I am not alone. Check it out, and perhaps think about your own views of your political and/or social opponents. Do you see them as opponents, people who you disagree with but who are nonetheless still your fellow citizens, or do you see them as enemies who must be destroyed? And be honest when you answer this question for yourself, I suspect that we all fall prey to this impulse, especially given that there is a ready-made media machine that is more than happy to cater to it.
*Yes, I put Michael Moore in the same category as Limbaugh and Hannity. While Moore is more sophisticated and less directly partisan, his methods are nonetheless very similar - mis-direction, knocking down strawmen, taking matters out of context, and emotional manipulation. You can try to defend him all you want, but any positive label that you may try to give him - for example, I oftne hear people try to defend him by calling him a polemicist - can just as justifiably by attributed to Rush Limbaugh. Personally, I have no use for either of them.