By Micah Cozzens
In the social media frenzy following the Capitol Riots on January 6th, 2021, I didn’t see many responses I would classify as moderate or much rhetoric I would characterize as civil.
My Facebook feed consisted mostly of people infuriated that one of the rioters--a female veteran--had been shot in the neck, or delighted that Nancy Pelosi was going to “get hers,” or people on both sides of the spectrum saying that it either paled in comparison to the destruction of the Portland and LA Black Lives Matter protests or was indicative of the sort of “horrifying” immorality only Trump supporters could condone. I saw Trump compared to Jesus. And I saw Trump compared to the devil.
The news and traditional media quickly caught up, with MSNBC titling videos of their coverage of the event “Chemical Burns and Chaos,” with CNN coverage calling it “treason, insurrection, . . . and rebellion.” Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show, compared the whole thing to 9/11--calling it even worse than 9/11--while repurposing quotes from Trump like “American carnage,” and calling it a precedent to “a second Civil War.” Was he joking? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.
And he wasn’t alone among late night comedians. Jimmy Kimmel, while keeping his tone more even, echoed Colbert’s sentiments, describing Trump’s pre-riot rally as “masturbatory.” Fox News, meanwhile, was no better. True, given their support of Trump in recent years, their headlines were less dystopian but their outrage over the left’s outrage was definitely not moderate or civil, with Fox News pundits like Tucker Carlson--who called the 2020 killing of George Floyd a “myth”--using the aftermath of the riots to suggest that because four of the dead in the riots were Trump supporters, the riots were an excuse for capitol police to enact violence on Trump supporters--nothing more.
To be clear, I’m not sure that the lack of moderation was bad. There is a part of me that’s certainly sympathetic with Colbert’s characterizations, and I understand that people are more likely to click on videos and articles if MSNBC and Fox label them with words like “carnage” or “police brutality” than “mild kerfuffle” or “It wasn’t as bad as 9/11.”
But I am concerned about this unspoken equation that responses lacking moderation are inherently more righteous. Many pundits, from Fox to CNN, were moved beyond journalistic equanimity into open anger as they covered the riot. And their takes are moving in their righteous anger, while my so-called moderate take probably seems weak, diluted, and wishy-washy. But is moderation always morally noncommittal? While I understand that people have good reason to be angry--the Capitol Riots were violent and completely avoidable as was, it seems, the death of the female veteran storming the Capitol--and while anger is not always a bad thing . . . in this case, I’m not sure that anger is really helpful. If anything, I think it prevents us from viewing the situation logically. I understand that there are times when emotions should be given precedence. After all, the Capitol Riots cost people their lives.
If we can’t get emotional about that, what can we get emotional about? And yet, this emotion isn’t unifying Americans but further dividing Americans, as news outlets relay coverage of the events, coverage that is so alarming it seems to demand immediate condemnation of the people responsible for the outrage--whatever you think that outrage is. Is it the killing of capitol protester and veteran Ashli Babbitt? Or is it the desecration of Congress and threatening of the peaceful transition of power? In short, I think the media, though understandably heated in the wake of a heated conflict, has mishandled their coverage, adding fuel to the fire of partisan divide by reporting exactly what they feel people should hear--partisanship included--rather than reporting just the facts.
Granted, it’s not wrong for a news outlet to have a devoted audience who wants to hear how right they are about everything. I mean, isn’t that the purpose of news entertainment? I’m definitely not going to click on a video that tells me how wrong I am about everything. At the end of a long, tiring work day, I don’t want intellectual stimulation. I want something easy, uncomplicated. There’s a reason people like echo chambers. We enjoy listening to people who think the same way we do us--that’s human nature, and I don’t think that’s going to change. And if we do click on something presenting views we disagree with, it’s usually the opposition’s most extreme, laughable argument, the better for us to easily dismiss. It’s my opinion, in short, that we’ll click on something that resonates with us or infuriates us before we’ll click on something that challenges us.
To be fair, many reporters, journalists, and even comedians aren’t just trying to get readers, viewers, or clicks. They’re interrogating power, which is vital to the survival of a democracy. Pundits and journalists at Fox and The Wire feel they are interrogating power by questioning the narrative presented by Democrats. And pundits and journalists at CNN, NBC, and PBS feel they’re interrogating power by questioning the narrative presented by Republicans. But when does questioning the other side’s narrative turn into outright disdain for the other side? My problem isn’t necessarily with the act of interrogating power, but rather the degree of heat and hostility in it.
I do understand that to many, opposing Trump and, post-election, his cabal of enabling GOP supporters including Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, and Ron Johnson, means returning blow for blow, responding to what they see as the egregious sins of his office and presidency with statements of outrage. Similarly, Republicans during President Obama’s Presidency felt they had a duty to attack his administration in every way they could because his proposed policies deviated from the Republican agenda so markedly. They saw in him increasing fiscal dependence on China, fewer American jobs, and a worse economy altogether. They had reasons to be outraged. And if it were just outrage, I would understand.
It’s not so much the statements as it is the tone accompanying them that bothers me. For example, when Hillary Clinton in 2016 called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” I felt her tone toward her possible constituents was explicitly and inappropriately hostile. Similarly, when Trump called the coronavirus a “Democratic hoax,” implying that Democratic leadership would make up a deadly pandemic for political reasons, I felt that was wrong and worryingly hostile. Is that really what they think of half the American population?
While I understand that rhetoric gets heated in campaigns, there is a difference between saying someone has fallen prey to xenophobia and saying someone is deplorable. And there is a difference between saying you find Democratic leadership hard to work with or maybe even untrustworthy and saying they’ve fabricated tales of a pandemic to alarm the American people. I don’t think it’s okay to support such sweeping generalizations. Granted, turning the other cheek doesn’t get you very far in politics.
But I can’t help but feel had language been moderated and been more civil, both in those latter examples and in coverage of the riots, things would have been better. Instead, Clinton, Trump, journalists, reporters, pundits, and comedians chose the path of division, the low road.
Of course, some people feel mild political rhetoric is lukewarm or, worse, morally noncommittal. Pick a side, people say. But while that’s fine for sports, does it really work for politics? I believe that a more unified nation is a stronger nation. Our differences matter, of course, and we need to debate and to argue. Sometimes those debates will get heated. But I think we can disagree with people without calling them deplorable or portraying them as the devil. We can disagree about important things without sacrificing our morality or being lukewarm and without calling each other bad names, threatening each other, or giving in to partisan politics. I know we can do this because Americans have done it before.
Abraham Lincoln is, of course, the foremost example of exemplary--and complicated--leadership keeping a divided country intact through restrained rhetoric, political machinations, and sustained personal humility. But bipartisanship through moderation is a much more recent phenomena in our politics as well.
When the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its height, President Kennedy called President Eisenhower for guidance. This is noteworthy because during their heated presidential campaign, Eisenhower told his advisors that he considered Kennedy young and inexperienced (calling him “Little Boy Blue” in private) while Kennedy considered Eisenhower old and out of touch (calling him “that old asshole”). Given their pre-formed opinions of each other, it seemed like their first meeting was set to be a disaster. But in his Profile in Power, Richard Reeves, Kennedy’s foremost biographer, says that in their initial meeting, the two men had “impressed each other in a grudging sort of way without really agreeing on much.” They were able to acknowledge that they had each misjudged the other to some degree, with Eisenhower admitting that Kennedy was (surprisingly) very intelligent and Kennedy admitting that Eisenhower was (surprisingly) experienced and well-informed.
This adjustment to their views--their ability to adjust their views--turned out to be very important. After the disastrous Bay of Pigs, Kennedy sought Eisenhower’s advice, even though it meant getting chastised for his errors. A picture of their meeting at Camp David in 1961 appeared in Time magazine with the caption: “The young president was learning.”
Then, in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy again turned to Eisenhower for guidance. Despite their differences, they had enough mutual respect to communicate civilly, which ended up--at least in part--preventing nuclear war as they were able to confer together about military and political strategy in response to the nuclear threat.
What would have happened had they publicly, rather than just privately, called each other “assholes” or “Little Boy Blue”? What if they had indulged their frustrations and given in to the temptation to criticize the other personally rather than just politically during the campaign? Would their first meeting have been contentious? Would Kennedy have been willing to ask for Eisenhower’s guidance? Maybe. But maybe not.
I, for one, am grateful that they kept their public rhetoric restrained. It would have been headline-grabbing, seemingly more aggressive and masculine to attack the other at every opportunity. But they didn’t. They disagreed about plenty of things, but they didn’t use that as an excuse to be immature. They didn’t need those cheap tactics. They had enough political merit without them, and they knew it. And this restraint made it easier for them to put the country first.
Similarly, during the transition from George W. Bush’s presidency to Barack Obama’s, Bush went out of his way to make things as relatively easy for Obama. Not only did he gracefully accept the election of a Democrat to office, but he also asked members of his administration to reach out to Obama’s team. Jim Puzzanghera writes that Bush showed remarkable empathy toward his successor and “ultimately made the biggest concession in that regard, infuriating many fellow Republicans by authorizing a $17.4 billion bailout of General Motors and Chrysler a month before Obama took office.” Martha Joynt Kumar has even written a book about this transition: Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power. The title implies a question: How did they manage a peaceful transfer of power at a moment of domestic strife and international chaos, when--in 2008--the US economy was collapsing all around us?
The answer? Humility, decency, and civil, moderate communication.
Civil, moderate, bipartisan communication isn’t about swallowing your opinions. Kennedy made it clear he felt he would be a better President than Eisenhower and vice versa. And yet, a functioning democracy requires, if not agreement with the other side, at least accountability to the other side. You’re only accountable when you have enough self-respect to value internal consistency, that quality of vital and elusive integrity. And when politicians are accountable to each other, they’re much more likely to be accountable to us--their constituents. And what are we electing them for, if not to be that?
The views expressed in this guest article do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of The Civility Initiative. The purpose of guest articles is to to help our readers more fully understand and see current issues from as many different vantage points as possible.
About the Author: Micah Cozzens is a Creative Writing PhD student studying at Ohio University. She grew up in a small town in North Carolina, among old-school Democrats and new-wave Republicans. She writes novels for young people, essays for bored people, and poetry for people that are both.